I have a chapter on ‘Genocide and Large-Scale Human Rights Violations’ in Mary Kaldor and Iavor Rangelov’s new Handbook of Global Security Policy. It’s a pretty pessimistic chapter, as I record the way in which the emergence of global policy towards genocide has been confined by geopolitics. Developments since I wrote, such as today’s widespread support for allying with the genocidal Assad regime to defeat the genocidal Islamic State movement, only underline the limitations of global policy which I outline in the chapter.

Handbook of Global Security Policy

(Before any readers complain, I must point out that several typos in the chapter, such as two references to the “United State’s” actions, are the result of Wiley-Blackwell’s awful editing, and not my responsibility.)

photo (1)My new article published on openDemocracy. Some additional comments, not in the openDemocracy version, are indicated by italics.

Israel’s slaughter in Gaza must make us all pause and ask whether we should rethink our stance on the Palestine conflict. The killing is presented as a regrettable response to Hamas’s provocations, an almost routine police action as the Israeli euphemism “mowing the lawn” suggests. However the very fact that this is regarded as normal means that we are dealing with a highly abnormal situation, which demands a radical response.

This is not self-defence

Israel’s claim to be acting in self-defence is much too easily accepted by western governments and media. The present crisis arises from Israeli aggression against Hamas following the murder of Israeli teenagers, which Israeli officials now admit was not carried out by Hamas. The recent escalation of rocket attacks was a response to these Israeli actions. (Michael Walzer, writing in New Republic, manages to miss all this, and neglect the fact that this was a war of choice for Israel.)

Moreover this crisis is the continuation of a larger conflict in which Israel cannot generally evoke self-defence. Its violence is not defending it against illegal aggression; instead Israel is enforcing illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, and Palestinian resistance is justified in principle. Israel has withdrawn its settlers from Gaza, but retains overall economic and military control and imposes a cruel blockade. In the rest of the Palestinian Territories, in the West Bank, Israel retains direct control and has promoted massive illegal settlement.

Israel’s legal duty is to end the occupation and rectify the injustices it has committed against the Palestinians. Only if it did that and still faced rocket attacks would it have a legitimate general claim to act in self-defence. (To be clear about the significance of this in terms of the international laws of war: Israel has continued the occupation arising from the 1967 war for 47 years and broken the prohibitions on occupying powers’ annexing and settling occupied territory. It cannot have a legitimate casus belli against those it rules over in this situation.)

Israel’s legitimate defensive interest is therefore a limited one: the prevention of Hamas’s illegitimate rocket attacks on civilians. It possesses extremely effective means of shooting them down, and while it is understandable that it also wishes to destroy the military infrastructure that makes them possible, it does not have a right to do this at the expense of the population of Gaza. (That is, Israel’s only possible justification concerns ius in bello, not ad bellum, but the way it is attacking Gaza rules this out too.)

It is clear that the larger air, sea and ground attacks on Gaza are illegitimate because they are utterly disproportionate to the requirements of ending the rocket threat. Moreover Israel is obliged by international law to take precautions to protect civilians from the force it claims to direct at Hamas. Any precautions it has taken are obviously completely inadequate.

In reality the careless targeting of homes, hospitals and schools and the relentless, murderous destruction of neighbourhoods compellingly suggest that civilian harm is completely intended by the Israeli government. This violence is effectively targeted at Gaza’s civilians as well as Hamas. In the light of the pre-existing blockade directed at Gaza’s population over many years, Israel’s violence can only be interpreted as an extreme continuation of collective punishment.

Israel’s use of force in this assault, as in the Lebanon war of 2006 and the two previous major attacks on Gaza, thus involves far more than the risk-transfer war that other western countries routinely practice. This is at least classic degenerate warfare, recalling Britain’s great shame of the second world war, its targeting of German cities to break civilian “morale”. This is “war” of a kind that the Geneva conventions of 1949 outlaw. Indeed if Israel’s aim is now to destroy Gazan society, rather than just to subjugate it, the killing in Gaza raises questions of genocide. (The subjective basis of ‘genocide’ is certainly present in Israel, as indicated by the remarks of Knesset member Ayelet Shaked and the notorious Times of Israel blogpost about ‘permissible genocide’ – perhaps one of the first open calls for ‘genocide’ as such on record. On the critical side, Daniel Feierstein, President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, has argued on Facebook that Israel’s policies are genocidal. Certainly, its campaign shows the affinities of what I call ‘degenerate war’ with genocide.)

Sanctions, “apartheid” and “singling out” Israel

In the face of this horror, we all have a duty of solidarity with the victims. In the short term, that means pressurising, and getting our governments to pressurise, Israel to stop the bombing. However it is obvious, after this third assault in six years, that we must act now to stop a fourth and a fifth. This means working towards a political solution to the occupation and the blockade of Gaza.

Many have long argued that boycotts and sanctions are the principal means that global civil society can exert towards this goal. The example of South Africa is usually cited in support and Israeli rule over Palestinians is compared to apartheid. I do not usually agree with Noam Chomsky, but his recent assessment puts this claim in perspective:

“Within Israel, discrimination against non-Jews is severe; the land laws are just the most extreme example. But it is not South African-style apartheid. In the occupied territories, the situation is far worse than it was in South Africa, where the white nationalists needed the black population: it was the country’s workforce, and as grotesque as the bantustans were, the nationalist government devoted resources to sustaining and seeking international recognition for them. In sharp contrast, Israel wants to rid itself of the Palestinian burden. The road ahead is not toward South Africa, as commonly alleged, but toward something much worse.”

South Africa never bombed black areas to smithereens, and the Sharpeville massacre in 1961 (with sixty-nine deaths) pales compared to what Israel is doing to Gaza.

Opponents of boycotts and sanctions like the late Norman Geras, a respected Marxist academic, argue that they “single out” Israel when other states are doing far worse things. In the region today, Syria has killed many more, and Egypt’s new regime too, its total soon to be boosted by mass death penalties. Yet the South African boycott, which Norman supported, also singled out one regime, by no means the most murderous of its day. In 1961 Mao Zedong was completing the “great leap forward”, which caused tens of millions of deaths, but there were no calls for sanctions against China from those who targeted apartheid after Sharpeville.

The relevance of boycotts and sanctions to the Israeli case

Boycott advocates counter, in any case, that supporters of Israel also single it out, justifying exceptional levels of western political, financial and military support. Clearly it would be strange to rule out boycotts and sanctions from the Israel-Palestine conflict in principle, because Israel is itself applying comprehensive sanctions to Gaza. The real question about such measures is not whether we are applying them to all bad regimes equally, but whether they are likely to help move the political situation forward in the particular case.

There are good reasons why boycotts and sanctions seem an unusually attractive weapon against Israel. Its dependence on support from the United States and other western states means that opposition to Israel in these societies could also have exceptional political consequences. (It is perverse of Chomsky to argue that there are weak prospects of success.) Although it remains difficult to imagine official sanctions by governments, even of the limited kind taken against Putin’s Russia, Israel’s dependence means that unofficial boycotts, on a sufficient scale, might have an unusual political effect, maybe even more than they did in South Africa.

The difficulty of the effects of severe sanctions, raised by the blockade which has impoverished Gaza (and by sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s), do not appear likely to apply in the Israeli case. A rich western society can surely withstand considerable economic and other pressure without its fabric crumbling or its people being deprived of life-saving medicines. A society that so overwhelmingly supports such severe sanctions against others cannot complain about the more limited sanctions and boycotts that its opponents might mobilise against it.

Why I was reluctant to support boycotts

In earlier discussions, I did not support a general boycott of Israel (although I boycotted goods from illegal settlements). This was not because I was impressed by prominent pro-Israeli arguments, for example that boycotts of Israel evoke boycotts of Jewish shops in Nazi Germany. Boycotters almost always distinguish clearly between Israeli businesses and institutions and Jewish businesses and institutions in general.

Indeed boycotters, like western critics of Israel generally, usually distinguish much more carefully between Israelis and Jews than do supporters of Israel. The latter’s identification of Israel with the world Jewish community almost invites a new kind of anti-Semitism, but western opponents of Israel are mostly scrupulous in avoiding this.

For these reasons, I previously defended boycotters while opposing boycotts. My reluctance to support the latter had much to do with some of the forms they took. I was repelled by the notorious removal of individual academics from editorial boards, simply because they were Israeli.

I remain opposed to any boycott of individual contacts on account of nationality, and believe it is important to maintain individual communications. Indeed it is crucial that direct support is given to courageous Israeli individuals and groups who oppose war and occupation. In due course I discovered, of course, that this is the mainstream position of the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions movement (BDS).

I was also suspicious of the logic of collective punishment involved in ostracising Israeli institutions. As an academic, I valued academic discourse and although I knew that Israeli universities were implicated in injustices against Palestinians, they were also disproportionately centres of debate and even opposition. I worried that blanket academic boycotts could weaken these. Similar arguments applied to the media, which contain some important bastions of free discussion.

However the decisive reason for not supporting boycotts and sanctions was that there always seemed some prospect, however tenuous, of negotiations leading to a settlement. Even if this was bound to be largely on Israeli terms, it seemed important to me (as it did to many Palestinians) to pursue the prospect. Even an unequal peace could open up cooperation based on common economic interests (Israel-Palestine is the size of Greater Los Angeles, as Bernard Avishai points out) and in the long run enable Palestinians to improve their situation.

So I thought it important to avoid doing anything that might make it more difficult, and worried that this could be the result of a large-scale boycott.

What has changed

There were always counter-arguments. Given the inequality between Israel and the Palestinians, external pressure could help even up the balance of forces and so lead to a marginally more just settlement. Peaceful global boycotts could encourage peaceful forces inside Palestine at the expense of the armed militancy which feeds Israeli militarism. Perhaps I didn’t give enough weight to these claims.

What convinces me of them now is that the pro-dialogue forces in Israel have never been weaker. Not only do almost all Israelis (87% in one poll) support their government’s current slaughter, but also the anti-war movement is the smallest of all Israel’s wars. Most important, the real negotiation between Israeli and Palestinian leaders that took place in the days of Ehud Olmert appears to have been definitively cast aside.

For many years Israel’s settlement policies have constantly diminished what little chance there was of a viable Palestinian state. Settlers steal Palestinian land and homes, aided and abetted by Israeli law, bureaucracy and armed force. The “security” wall divides Palestinian communities. Army, police and settlers harass Palestinian families and the state fails to protect them from settler violence. State and municipal policies whittle away the Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem.

However Israeli leaders have kept the increasing fiction of a two-state solution alive and allowed John Kerry to shuttle too and fro in ever-more hopeless diplomacy. The US connived with this by never putting sharp pressure on Israel. Binyamin Netanyahu never really supported a two-state solution and his coalition’s centre of gravity reflects the ever-strengthening pro-settler right, even as it includes some “moderates” like Tipi Livni. The exploitation of the teenage murders first to terrorise the West Bank and then shatter Gaza has made it clear that Israel has no interest in peace.

Netanyahu abandons the two-state solution

Peter Beinart draws attention to Netanyahu’s recent declaration: “There cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.” Beinart also cites the view of Times of Israel editor David Horovitz, a Netanyahu sympathiser, that the prime minister was “insisting upon ongoing Israeli security oversight inside and at the borders of the West Bank. That sentence, quite simply, spells the end to the notion of Netanyahu consenting to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Therefore Israel is dominated by forces which are wholly committed to maintaining control over the Palestinians and their territories. It is difficult to see a constellation of forces emerging which will change this any time soon – except possibly in the direction of yet more radical assaults on Palestinians, maybe within Israel proper. The attack on Gaza appears as a final confirmation of the direction in which Israel has been travelling for a long time. In this context, my reticence about the boycott is as futile as Kerry’s willingness to continue shuttle diplomacy. Moreover, the distinction between boycotting Israel and boycotting settlements is meaningless since the state has committed itself totally to settlements, settlers and all that their growing dominance in the West Bank means for the possibility of a Palestinian state.

Boycott, an unavoidable political choice?

In this situation, for there ever to be a chance of change and a negotiated end to the occupation, Israel has to be subjected to much more of the coercion to which it so readily subjects others. This coercion can come in two forms. One is the violence of Hamas and others: indeed it is important to note that analysts increasingly emphasise that destroying Hamas will only open up the way for “more extreme” forces. The other is peaceful pressure, in the forms of civil protest inside Palestine, a boycott in western and global civil society, and sanctions by any governments on which civil society can exert sufficient pressure to act.

In the last decade, a vicious cycle of violence has helped close down civil protest and reinforce the relentless pro-settler, anti-two-state dynamic of Israeli politics as well as Hamas’s dominance in Gaza. If we outside Palestine hope for a virtuous cycle of protest and dialogue, we have a duty to make our own contributions, through action as well as talk. Palestinians and Israelis cannot do this on their own. A general boycott of Israeli goods, along the lines of the South African boycott, seems the minimum that is needed.

How far should this be extended to cultural spheres like academia, media and the arts? In prioritising an economic boycott, we cannot neglect these areas. A boycott of Israeli institutions is a price they will have to pay to prevent a repeat of what we have seen over the last two weeks – or worse. While contacts with individual academics continue, boycotting conferences in Israel sends a strong message of international disapproval. Stephen Hawking’s refusal to attend a conference hosted by president Shimon Peres worried Israel: its leaders even refrained from inciting accusations of anti-Semitism (usually made against those who boycott the country) against him. The rest of us may not be so lucky, but that too is a small price for standing up. In any case, abuse is weakening the potency of such accusations.

Israel’s future

Many will say, as I might have said before, that isolating Israel will only reinforce the deep reactionary trends in its politics. This may be true in the short term, but it seems as though only a sharp challenge and dislocation will turn this society and state in a different direction. Israel is radically overplaying its hand locally, regionally and globally by spurning the opportunities for settlement with Palestinian leaders which are on offer. If its present course continues, it is probably only a matter of time before the state experiences a radical shock which will present it with the existential crisis that its leaders’ rhetoric has long invoked to justify its atrocities.

Such a shock may come about through the accelerating instability of the wider Middle East, which hardly promises a safe environment for this outpost of the west. It would be better for everyone if it came through western states’ pulling the plug on Israel’s support-mechanisms. Boycotting Israel is not just a way of helping the Palestinians: it could also be the best way to save Israelis from the consequences of their own folly.

Posted on openDemocracy.net The Ukraine and Gaza crises alike demonstrate the risks of aggressive policy based on short-term calculations. Vladimir Putin and Binyamin Netanyahu’s war-as-politics invites damaging long-term consequences.

The slaughters in Ukraine and Gaza have one thing in common. Both result from governments authorising violence which is overwhelmingly motivated by domestic politics and appears almost gratuitous from a strategic point of view. Such policies promise short-term domestic popularity, but risk losing international credibility and producing serious blowback. Vladimir Putin is now finding this out. Binyamin Netanyahu should take note: the blowback for Israel could be far more serious.

Putin’s nemesis

Putin began his capricious military intervention in Ukraine to offset the humiliation of the Maidan protestors’ overthrow of the kleptocratic president Viktor Yanukovych, the day after Russia had endorsed the European Union foreign ministers’ deal for a gradual transition. Putin’s initial intervention secured total control over Crimea with its Russian naval bases, though these (like Russian speakers in Crimea) had never seriously been threatened. Putin, emboldened by a success which played to the nationalist gallery, then promoted the transformation of eastern Ukrainians’ political opposition to the new Kiev regime into armed rebellion, and followed up by sending Russian officers and weapons and encouraging Russian as well as local activists.

The strategy had the domestic effect of boosting Putin’s popularity. But it imposed a high cost in life and disruption on the people he claimed to be helping, provoked great western hostility, and did not stop Kiev gradually reasserting some control.

Now, however, the shooting-down on 17 July of a Malaysian Airways plane with 298 international travellers on board – to all appearances by pro-Russian separatists – raises the stakes to an entirely new level. This outrage can fairly be painted as the outcome of Putin’s adventure and is leading to worldwide condemnation of his regime. This could have serious consequences for Russia’s global economic as well political position. In the longer run it could certainly translate into domestic political costs for Putin.

Netanyahu’s gamble

Where Binyamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government is concerned, it almost certainly knew that the three teenagers whose kidnap led to its army’s rampage through the West Bank were already dead. More children were killed in the army operation, houses blown up and hundreds arrested (including many previously released Hamas supporters). The government definitely knew that, in response, Hamas would have every reason to escalate its rocket attacks. Partly to keep extreme right-wing, pro-settler elements within the governing coalition, Netanyahu calculated that Israel’s public, outraged by media hysteria over the murdered teenagers, would rally to whatever violence its military inflicted, not just on Hamas, but on Palestinian civilians.

There are conventional military elements to Israel’s attack on Gaza, but it is difficult to dignify them as strategic. These amount to inflicting short-term damage on Hamas’s economic and political as well as military infrastructure. However as the obscene euphemism “mowing the lawn” suggests, these gains are recognised as short-term. In any case the starting-point of this campaign, and its larger purpose as it continues, is surely to punish Palestinians as a whole for the delectation of an Israeli public opinion desensitised to dead bodies which are not their own. In this purpose, too, the gains can only be short-term, as once Gazans emerge from the rubble they will surely be radicalised by the new outrage that Israel has committed on them. The signs of this are already apparent.

Netanyahu’s blowback problem is not just Hamas: its political reinforcement is a predictable consequence of what he is doing, just as the continuing dominance of the aggressive Israeli right is a predictable consequence of Hamas’s rocket campaigns. The real problem is the extreme instability of the wider Middle East, with long-term wars raging in Syria and Iraq, in which the stability of Jordan – absolutely crucial to Israel’s own – is increasingly at risk. The gain to Israel of the brutal new, anti-Hamas Egyptian government is small in comparison.

Israel could find itself, not too far ahead, facing an opposition far worse than Hamas, which cannot be contained by the quick-fix punitive expeditions that Israel has practised in Gaza and Lebanon in the last decade, and which are easily sold to a domestic public and tolerated by western governments. Indeed these assaults, which Israelis now think of as routine, could contribute to a radicalisation beyond Gaza, and beyond as well as within Israel-Palestine, which will genuinely threaten their security in a way in which Hamas can never do.

Israeli adventurism: the real stakes

This is Netanyahu’s real gamble. For small, encircled Israel, dependent on United States and western support, the stakes of adventurism are far higher than they are for a great power like Russia, secure in its own borders and facing no real military threats. Israeli leaders, relentlessly focused on the short term (as their unstable electoral-coalition system dictates) could be making a historic blunder by ignoring the strategic advantages of a settlement with the existing Palestinian political forces – including Hamas.

The outlines of a deal, overwhelmingly on Israel’s terms even if requiring some difficult concessions, have been on the table for a long time. Peaceful Israeli and Palestinian states alongside each other, with cooperative economic arrangements and even a fraction of the western aid now buttressing Israel’s military stance, would offer a bulwark of stability which military occupation and violent collective punishment can never provide. In ten or twenty years’ time, the world might ask how Israeli leaders could possibly have indulged this dangerous temptation of short-term military gratification at the cost of a political and strategic solution.

The problem of war-as-politics

Karl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) famously claimed that war is the continuation of Politik by other means. The word is usually translated as “policy”, but sometimes as “politics”. In the 21st century, however, war is increasingly the continuation of domestic politics, with geopolitical policy and military strategy subordinated to domestic goals.

Since Margaret Thatcher salvaged her deep domestic unpopularity by successfully avenging the Argentine invasion of the Falkland/Malvinas islands in 1982, governments have increasingly factored electoral calculations into military decisions. Western leaders over the last three decades – like Netanyahu today – have been tempted by quick-fix wars with minimal political risks, in which few of “our” soldiers are killed and the life-costs are mainly transferred to innocent civilians in the war-zone. (see The New Western Way of War, where I call this “risk-transfer war”).

Such wars have worked only for short periods. In an extreme but relevant case, George W Bush’s hubris in declaring “major combat over” in Iraq in 2003 was exposed by the unending, low-level genocidal civil war that continues to this day. Despite Tony Blair’s protests, this war did not just introduce “terrorism” and al-Qaida to Iraq, but has led ultimately to ISIS and the new “Islamic State”. Even electorally, although Bush may have scraped re-election, his presidency ended in ignominy and the defeat of his party, while Blair has of course become a pariah in Europe.

Netanyahu should heed not only Putin’s, but also Bush’s nemesis. He may keep his show on the road for a while longer as a result of the latest assault, but the new, much more aggressive and unpredictable Islamists which Bush’s policies helped to unleash are not far from Jordan and even Israel itself. It is a mark of the extreme short-termism which characterises Israeli, like most governments’, policies that few are thinking of the dramatically different stakes that would arise if the Palestinian crisis should be connected to the wider instability, as the Iraqi crisis has been dramatically connected to the Syrian war.

The Gaza war is meant to be, like Israel’s and other western wars, a contained exercise. But what if Clausewitz’s law of escalation should assert itself in currently unforeseen ways?

Genocide, Risk and Resilience

Posted: December 4, 2013 in genocide

I have a chapter, ‘The Concept of Genocide: What Are We Preventing?’ in a new book edited by Bert Ingelaere, Stephan Parmentier, Jacques Haers and Barbara Segaert, GENOCIDE, RISK AND RESILIENCE: An Interdisciplinary Approach, just out from Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978 1 137 33242 4

UCSIA Genocide book cover‘This collection adopts an interdisciplinary approach in order to understand the various factors at work in genocidal processes and their aftermath. The strong emphasis on legal norms, legal concepts and legal measures in other studies fails to consider further significant issues in relation to genocide. This book aims to redress this balance exploring social dynamics and human behaviour as well as the interplay of various psychological, political, sociological, anthropological and historical factors at work in genocidal processes. With contributions from top international scholars, this volume provides an integrated perspective on risk and resilience, acknowledging the importance of mitigating factors in understanding and preventing genocide. It explores a range of issues including the conceptual definition of genocide, the notion of intent, preventive measures, transitional justice, the importance of property, the role of memory, self or national interest and principles of social existence. Genocide, Risk and Resilience aims to cross conceptual, disciplinary and temporal boundaries and in doing so, provides rich insights for scholars from across political science, history, law, philosophy, anthropology and theology.’

This publication is the result of the international workshop on the topic of Preventing Genocide: Root Causes and Coping Strategies organized in Antwerp in 2011.

Entry on Genocide in Oxford Bibliographies, now online http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199756384/obo-9780199756384-0029.xml?rskey=vzO6sR&result=3&q=.

Prize-winning article!

Posted: October 6, 2013 in genocide

One of my articles has won a prize for the best article in the European Journal of International Relations between 2010 and 2013. From comparative to international genocide studies: The international production of genocide in 20th-century Europe was published in 2012, and covers some of the same ground as my new book Genocide and International Relations: Changing Patterns in the Transitions of the Late Modern World, just published. The prize was awarded at the 8th Pan-European IR conference in Warsaw.

EJIR cover

Abstract: Genocide is widely seen as a phenomenon of domestic politics, which becomes of international significance because it offends against international law. Hence there are as yet inadequate International Relations analyses of the production of genocide. This article challenges the idea of the domestic genesis of genocide, and critiques the corresponding approach of ‘comparative genocide studies’ which is dominant in the field. It analyses the emergence of more fruitful ‘relational’ and ‘international’ approaches in critical genocide studies, while identifying the limitations of their accounts of the ‘international system’. As first steps towards an adequate international account, the article then explores questions of the international meaning and construction of genocidal relations, and of international relations as the context of genocide. It argues for a historical and sociological approach to the international relations of genocide, and examines 20th-century European genocide in this light. Arguing for a broader conception of this historical experience than is suggested by an exclusive focus on the Holocaust, the article offers an interpretation of genocide as increasingly endemic and systemic in international relations in the first half of the century. It concludes by arguing that this account offers a starting point, but not a model, for analyses of genocide in global international relations in the 21st century.

My personal take on the Ralph and Ed Miliband saga. A version has also been published on openDemocracy.

It is ironic as well as objectionable that the Daily Mail’s notorious piece on the late Ralph Miliband, which has so rebounded on the paper, should have brought into question his British identity. Not only did Ralph, as Ed Miliband was rightly quick to point out, fight with British forces in the Second World War. But Ralph’s intellectual and political projects, while framed within Marxist theory and socialist internationalism, were also in very important senses British.

The radical student response to Ralph Miliband

I went to the London School of Economics, where Ralph Miliband taught, in 1965 to study Sociology. While at school, I had been involved in Labour politics in the Newcastle-under-Lyme constituency of Stephen Swingler, a left-wing MP who had been prominent in the Victory for Socialism movement within the party. At LSE, I moved rapidly to the left in opposition to the Labour government’s backing for the US war in Vietnam, its anti-trade union policies and the appeasement of racism in its immigration policies. Swingler’s support for the latter – he had been co-opted by Harold Wilson who made him a transport minister – was a turning point in my own rejection of the Labour Party and movement towards the emerging far left.

As I abandoned the LSE Labour Club for the more radical Socialist Society, fellow students quickly pointed me in the direction of Miliband’s lectures. His authoritative, reasoned exposition of a Marxist perspective on power, soon to be published as The State in Capitalist Society (1969), was enormously impressive. As a lecturer, he had an open, relaxed but very careful manner that was very attractive; even a former Tory cabinet minister, Lord Moore, has testified to the integrity manifested in his teaching.

However Ralph Miliband’s bonds with his left-wing students were soon to be tested. Parliamentary Socialism (1964), which demonstrated the limits of reformism in practice, was already a classic in our eyes. It underpinned our rejection of Labour, as The State soon gave wider backing to our Marxist perspective. However as our theoretical perspectives transformed, Ralph’s works quickly came to appear too narrow, both in their overwhelmingly British basis and in their more general empiricism. (Although I should add that this does not mean that we uncritically embraced the French structuralism of Nicos Poulantzas, in the Miliband-Poulantzas debate of the 1970s.)

Moreover since ‘empiricism’ was well known to be a peculiarly British sin, the Miliband oeuvre was increasingly pigeonholed as a very British contribution to the burgeoning Marxism of the 1960s, even if it would be more accurate to say that it was closer to the radical Sociology of the non-Marxist American, C. Wright Mills. Indeed, Ralph was part of the formidable cohort of anti-Stalinist socialists, with generally loose and ambiguous relationships to Marxism as such, who clustered in the New Left of the late 1950s.

Within this very British phenomenon, Edward Thompson spoke for a distinctively English radicalism and Raymond Williams for working-class experience grounded in his Welsh border background. These local identities were not available, however, to a refugee like Ralph, however – or indeed to Stuart Hall who had come to Britain from Jamaica. The post-imperial British identity not only provided the overarching frame for the New Left but a specific reference point for those who were not English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish by background. It is an interesting counter-point to the Mail’s narrow casting of Britishness to reflect on the fact that part of the contemporary meaning of ‘British’ is its greater inclusiveness – for example we have British, but not English, Asians and Muslims.

It was not, however, Britishness that most tested Ralph Miliband’s relationship with the student left of the late 1960s. Although Ralph’s long-term collaborator John Saville wrote in his 1994 obituary, helpfully reposted by the Guardian this week, that ‘during the 1968 troubles at LSE he was outstanding in his defence of the students’ positions’, Miliband’s stance, like that of most of the left-wing academics, inevitably fell short of the radical students’ expectations. I mention this because it led my 20-year-old self to publish a name-calling criticism of Ralph in the International Socialist paper, Labour Worker – for which I was rightly slapped down by some more mature comrades. Ralph must have been aware of this, but with typical generosity never alluded to it in our later dealings.

Ralph Miliband and a political alternative to Labourism

Ralph welcomed student radicalism but was obviously wary of its excesses. Likewise, as one would expect from his critique of parliamentarism, he engaged with the anti-parliamentary left of the late 1960s and early 1970s but did not join any of its groupuscules. Empiricism could also be read as groundedness: Ralph was strongly rooted in British politics – indeed he had engaged with Victory for Socialism and was friendly with Swingler. He could tell the difference between small organisations whose narrow ideological stances would always limit their mass appeal, and a movement with the real promise of creating a real party to the left of Labour.

Even after this radical period, Ralph continued to argue for an alternative to Labourism and was always interested in any initiatives that seemed to promise movement in that direction. When I left the International Socialists after a decade, in frustration at their attitudes to democracy both in general and within their own organisation, he and Saville published my critical history of IS in The Socialist Register 1978. Ralph took a keen interest in the subsequent Socialist Unity movement, in which Socialist Challenge under Tariq Ali’s editorship joined with former IS members and the Big Flame group, but rightly intuited that this too was too narrowly based to lead to a breakthrough.

Later Ralph involved himself in a variety of socialist initiatives across the Labour/non-Labour left divide. His guiding line seemed to be to foster a vigorous, democratic and non-sectarian socialist current, whether inside or outside the party. Unlike many Marxist academics, he constantly involved himself in – Daily Mail please note – British politics.

Over to Ed

All of this is relevant now, of course, only because the Mail is taking aim at Ed Miliband, in the light of his successful Labour conference and popular proposal to control energy prices. Ed naturally, and accurately, emphasises that his politics are very different from his father’s. Yet the fact that Ed and David Miliband have become leading Labour politicians, often seen as supremely ironic, is not quite so surprising when we consider Ralph’s own trajectory and experience.

Ralph Miliband may have shown in Parliamentary Socialism that Labour, hidebound by parliamentarism, would prove incapable of achieving socialism. But his advocacy of an independent British socialist party failed to make a strong impact, and all the efforts in his lifetime to achieve something like that proved deeply unsuccessful. British politics have fractured and mutated over the last half century, but the beneficiaries have been sundry centrists, nationalists, greens and now (with UKIP) the reactionary right – everyone indeed except the socialist left. And this seems unlikely to change.

Where does that leave those motivated, as Ed Miliband claims to be, by the democratic socialist values that Ralph embraced? There are of course many extra-parliamentary means by which they can make a difference, within a capitalist society. But in a parliamentary democracy, it matters who wins elections and runs the government. It is a reasonable conclusion that we should try to use the major existing centre-left political force to make a difference too, and to find new ways of linking parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggles which will reinforce both. In this sense, Ed Miliband’s political project is both coherent in its own terms and a logical conclusion from the failure of his father’s. Moreover Ed seems to possess Ralph’s guts, integrity and honesty, which puts him (in personal terms) well ahead of the Labour leaders of the last two decades.

None of this is to say that Ed Miliband has shown a clear and coherent medium-term strategy for achieving reform. Nor is it to say that the Labour Party, in its present state, is a promising instrument for achieving even those modest goals which Ed Miliband has advanced. Evidently, forging credible social-democratic policies from the present position, starting from the dispiriting legacy of the Blair-Brown governments, and in the face of Tory-Lib Dem and press attacks, and winning the 2015 election with a real majority, are a tall order. The electoral odds – the negative experience of Tory rule, the pro-Labour bias of the electoral system, the UKIP drag on the Tory vote – suggest Labour will probably be the largest party. But anything more than that will require a serious shift in popular opinion, which so far Ed Miliband is far from achieving.