Harold Joseph Laski
30 June 1893
|Died||24 March 1950 (aged 56)|
Frida Kerry (m. 1911)
|Alma mater||New College, Oxford|
|School or tradition||Socialism, Marxism|
|Institutions||London School of Economics|
|Notable works||A Grammar of Politics (1925)|
Harold Joseph Laski (30 June 1893 – 24 March 1950) was an English political theorist and economist. He was active in politics and served as the chairman of the British Labour Party during 1945–1946, and was a professor at the London School of Economics from 1926 to 1950. He first promoted pluralism, emphasising the importance of local voluntary communities such as trade unions. After 1930 he shifted to a Marxist emphasis on class conflict and the need for a workers' revolution, which he hinted might be violent. Laski's position angered Labour leaders who promised a nonviolent democratic transformation. Laski's position on democracy came under further attack from Winston Churchill in the 1945 general election and the Labour party had to disavow Laski, its chairman.
Laski was one of Britain's most influential intellectual spokesmen for socialism in the interwar years. In particular, his teaching greatly inspired students, some of whom later became leaders of newly independent nations in Asia and Africa. He was perhaps the most prominent intellectual in the Labour Party, especially for those on the left who shared his trust and hope in Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union. He was distrusted by the Labour politicians who were in charge, such as Prime Minister Clement Attlee, and was never given a major government position or a peerage.
Early life and education
Harold Laski was born in Manchester on 30 June 1893 to Nathan and Sarah Laski. Nathan Laski was a Lithuanian Jewish cotton merchant from Brest-Litowsk in what is now Belarus and a leader of the Liberal Party, while his mother was born in Manchester to Polish Jewish parents. He had a disabled sister named Mabel who was one year younger. His elder brother was Neville Laski, while a cousin (Neville Blond) was the founder of the Royal Court Theatre and father of the author and publisher Anthony Blond.
Harold attended the Manchester Grammar School. In 1911, he studied eugenics under Karl Pearson for six months. The same year he met and married Frida Kerry, a lecturer of eugenics. His marriage to Frida, a gentile and eight years his senior, antagonised his family. He also repudiated his faith in Judaism, claiming that reason prevented him from believing in God. After studying for a degree in history at New College, Oxford, he graduated in 1914. He was awarded the Beit memorial prize during his time at New College. He failed his medical eligibility tests and thus missed fighting in World War I. After graduation he worked briefly at the Daily Herald under George Lansbury. His daughter Diana was born in 1916.
In 1916, Laski was appointed as a lecturer of modern history at McGill University in Montreal and began to lecture at Harvard University. He also lectured at Yale in 1919–20. For his outspoken support of the Boston Police Strike of 1919, Laski received severe criticism. He was briefly involved with the founding of The New School for Social Research in 1919.
Laski cultivated a large network of American friends centred at Harvard, whose law review he had edited. He was often invited to lecture in America and wrote for The New Republic. He became friends with Felix Frankfurter as well as Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, Edmund Wilson, and Charles A. Beard. His long friendship with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was cemented by weekly letters, which have been published. He knew many powerful figures, and claimed to know many more. Critics have often commented on Laski's repeated exaggerations and self-promotion, which Holmes tolerated. His wife commented that he was "half-man, half-child, all his life."
Laski returned to England in 1920 and began teaching government at the London School of Economics (LSE). In 1926, he was made professor of political science at the LSE. Laski was an executive member of the socialist Fabian Society during 1922–1936. In 1936, he co-founded the Left Book Club along with Victor Gollancz and John Strachey. He was a prolific writer, producing a number of books and essays throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
While at the LSE in the 1930s, Laski developed a connection with scholars from the Institute for Social Research, more commonly known today as the Frankfurt School. In 1933, with almost all the institute's members by now in exile, Laski was among a number of British socialists, including Sidney Webb and R. H. Tawney, to arrange for the establishment of a London office for the institute's use. After the institute's move to Columbia University in 1934, Laski was one of its sponsored guest lecturers invited to New York. Laski also played a role in bringing Franz Neumann to join the institute. After fleeing Germany almost immediately after Hitler's takeover, Neumann did graduate work in political science under Laski and Karl Mannheim at the LSE, writing his dissertation on the rise and fall of the rule of law. It was on Laski's recommendation that Neumann was then invited to join the institute in 1936.
Laski was a gifted lecturer, but he would alienate his audience by humiliating people who asked questions. However, he was liked by his students, and was especially influential among Asian and African students who attended the LSE. Describing Laski's approach, Kingsley Martin wrote in 1968:
He was still in his late twenties and looked like a schoolboy. His lectures on the history of political ideas were brilliant, eloquent, and delivered without a note; he often referred to current controversies, even when the subject was Hobbes's theory of sovereignty.
Ralph Miliband, another student of Laski, praised his teaching as follows:
His lectures taught more, much more than political science. They taught a faith that ideas mattered, that knowledge was important and its pursuit exciting ... His seminars taught tolerance, the willingness to listen although one disagreed, the values of ideas being confronted. And it was all immense fun, an exciting game that had meaning, and it was also a sieve of ideas, a gymnastics of the mind carried on with vigour and directed unobtrusively with superb craftsmanship. I think I know now why he gave himself so freely. Partly it was because he was human and warm and that he was so interested in people. But mainly it was because he loved students, and he loved students because they were young. Because he had a glowing faith that youth was generous and alive, eager and enthusiastic and fresh. That by helping young people he was helping the future and bringing nearer that brave world in which he so passionately believed.
Ideology and political convictions
Laski's early work promoted pluralism, especially in the essays collected in Studies in the Problem of Sovereignty (1917), Authority in the Modern State (1919), and The Foundations of Sovereignty (1921). He argued that the state should not be considered supreme, because people could and should have loyalties to local organisations, clubs, labour unions, and societies. The state should respect these allegiances and promote pluralism and decentralisation.
Laski became a proponent of Marxism and believed in a planned economy based on the public ownership of the means of production. Instead of, as he saw it, a coercive state, Laski believed in the evolution of co-operative states that were internationally bound and stressed social welfare. He also believed that, since the capitalist class would not acquiesce in its own liquidation, the cooperative commonwealth was not likely to be attained without violence. But he also had a commitment to civil liberties, free speech and association, and representative democracy. Initially, he believed that the League of Nations would bring about an "international democratic system". However, from the late 1920s, his political beliefs became radicalised and he believed that it was necessary to go beyond capitalism to "transcend the existing system of sovereign states". Laski was dismayed by the Hitler–Stalin pact of August 1939 and wrote a preface to the Left Book Club collection criticising it, Betrayal of the Left. Between the beginning of World War II in 1939 and the attack on Pearl Harbor which drew the United States into the war in 1941, Laski was a prominent voice advocating American support for the allied powers, becoming a prolific author of articles in the American press, frequently undertaking lecture tours in the US, and influencing prominent American friends including Felix Frankfurter, Edward R. Murrow, Max Lerner, and Eric Sevareid. In his last years, he was disillusioned by the Cold War and the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. George Orwell described him as "A socialist by allegiance, and a liberal by temperament".
Laski was always a Zionist at heart and always felt himself a part of the Jewish nation, although he viewed traditional Jewish religion as restrictive. In 1946, Laski said in a radio address that the Catholic Church opposed democracy, and said that "it is impossible to make peace with the Roman Catholic Church. It is one of the permanent enemies of all that is decent in the human spirit."
Laski tried to mobilise Britain's academics, teachers, and intellectuals behind the socialist cause; the Socialist League was one effort. He had some success but this element typically found itself marginalised in the Labour Party.
Laski's main political role came as a writer and lecturer on every topic of concern to the left, including socialism, capitalism, working conditions, eugenics, women's suffrage, imperialism, decolonisation, disarmament, human rights, worker education, and Zionism. He was tireless in his speeches and pamphleteering, and was always on call to help a Labour candidate. In between he served on scores of committees and carried a full load as a professor and advisor to students.
Laski plunged into Labour party politics on his return to London in 1920. In 1923, he turned down the offer of a parliament seat and cabinet position by Ramsay MacDonald, and also a seat in the Lords. He felt betrayed by MacDonald in the crisis of 1931, and decided that a peaceful, democratic transition to socialism would be blocked by the violence of the opposition. In 1932, Laski joined the Socialist League, a left-wing faction inside the Labour Party. In 1937, he was involved in the failed attempt by Socialist League in co-operation with the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) to form a Popular Front to bring down the Conservative government of Neville Chamberlain. During 1934–45, he served as an alderman in the Fulham Borough Council and also the chairman of the libraries committee.
In 1937, the Socialist League was rejected by the Labour Party and folded. He was elected as a member of the Labour Party's National Executive Committee, of which he remained a member until 1949. In 1944, he chaired the Labour party conference and served as the party's chair during 1945–46.
During the war, he supported Prime Minister Churchill's coalition government and gave countless speeches to encourage the battle against Germany. He suffered a nervous breakdown brought about by overwork. During the war he repeatedly feuded with other Labour figures, and with Churchill, on matters great and small. He steadily lost his influence.
In the 1945 general election campaign, Churchill warned that Laski—as the Labour Party chairman—would be the power behind the throne in an Attlee government. While speaking for the Labour candidate in Nottinghamshire on 16 June 1945, Laski said: "If Labour did not obtain what it needed by general consent, we shall have to use violence even if it means revolution". He was replying to a question planted by Conservatives hoping to get exactly that response. The next day, accounts of Laski's speech appeared and the Conservatives attacked the Labour Party for its chairman's advocacy of violence. Laski filed a libel suit against the Conservative Daily Express newspaper. The defence showed that over the years Laski had often bandied about loose threats of "revolution". The jury found for the newspaper[clarification needed] within forty minutes of deliberations.
Clement Attlee gave Laski no role in the new Labour government. Even before the libel trial, Laski's relationship with Attlee was a strained one. Laski had once called Attlee "uninteresting and uninspired" in the American press and even tried to remove him by asking for Attlee's resignation in an open letter. He tried to delay the Potsdam Conference until after Attlee's position was clarified. He tried to bypass Attlee by directly dealing with Winston Churchill. Laski tried to preempt foreign policy decisions, laying down guidelines for the new Labour government. Attlee rebuked him:
You have no right whatever to speak on behalf of the Government. Foreign affairs are in the capable hands of Ernest Bevin. His task is quite sufficiently difficult without the irresponsible statements of the kind you are making ... I can assure you there is widespread resentment in the Party at your activities and a period of silence on your part would be welcome.
Though he continued to work for the Labour party until his died, he never regained political influence. His pessimism deepened as he disagreed with the anti-Soviet policies of the Attlee government in the emerging Cold War, and he was profoundly disillusioned with the conservative direction of American policy.
Laski's biographer Michael Newman wrote:
Convinced that the problems of his time were too urgent for leisurely academic reflection, Laski wrote too much, overestimated his influence, and sometimes failed to distinguish between analysis and polemic. But he was a serious thinker and a charismatic personality whose views have been distorted because he refused to accept Cold War orthodoxies.
Herbert A. Deane has identified five distinct phases of Laski's thought that he never integrated. The first three were pluralist (1914–1924), Fabian (1925–1931), and Marxian (1932–1939). There followed a 'popular-front' approach (1940–1945), and in the last years (1946–1950) near-incoherence and multiple contradictions. Laski's long-term impact on Britain is hard to quantify. Newman notes that "It has been widely held that his early books were the most profound and that he subsequently wrote far too much, with polemics displacing serious analysis."
However, Laski had a major long-term impact on support for socialism in India and other countries in Asia and Africa. He taught generations of future leaders at the LSE, including India's Jawaharlal Nehru. According to John Kenneth Galbraith, "the centre of Nehru's thinking was Laski" and "India the country most influenced by Laski's ideas". It is mainly due to his influence that the LSE has a semi-mythological status in India. He was steady in his unremitting advocacy of the independence of India. He was a revered figure to Indian students at the LSE. One Indian Prime Minister of India said "in every meeting of the Indian Cabinet there is a chair reserved for the ghost of Professor Harold Laski". His recommendation of K. R. Narayanan (later President of India) to Jawaharlal Nehru (then Prime Minister of India), resulted in Nehru appointing Narayanan to the Indian Foreign Service. In his memory, the Indian government established The Harold Laski Institute of Political Science in 1954 at Ahmedabad.
Speaking at a meeting organised in Laski's memory by the Indian League at London on 3 May 1950, Nehru praised him as follows:
It is difficult to realise that Professor Harold Laski is no more. Lovers of freedom all over the world pay tribute to the magnificent work that he did. We in India are particularly grateful for his staunch advocacy of India's freedom, and the great part he played in bringing it about. At no time did he falter or compromise on the principles he held dear, and a large number of persons drew splendid inspiration from him. Those who knew him personally counted that association as a rare privilege, and his passing away has come as a great sorrow and a shock.
Laski was an inspiration for Ellsworth Toohey, the antagonist in Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead (1943). The posthumously published Journals of Ayn Rand, edited by David Harriman, include a detailed description of Rand attending a New York lecture by Laski, as part of gathering material for her novel, following which she changed the physical appearance of the fictional Toohey to fit that of the actual Laski.
Laski had a tortuous writing style. George Orwell, in his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language" cited, as his first example of extremely bad writing, a 53-word sentence from Laski's "Essay in Freedom of Expression" that contains five negative phrases. However, 67 of the Labour MPs elected in 1945 had been taught by Laski as university students, at Workers' Educational Association classes or on courses for wartime officers. When Laski died, the Labour MP Ian Mikardo commented: "His mission in life was to translate the religion of the universal brotherhood of man into the language of political economy."
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- Works by Harold Joseph Laski at Faded Page (Canada)
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- Biography and various quotations regarding Laski
- Brief biographical sketch from the London School of Economics
- Newspaper clippings about Harold Laski in the 20th Century Press Archives of the ZBW
|Party political offices|
|Preceded by |
| Chair of the Labour Party |
|Preceded by |
G. D. H. Cole
| Chairman of the Fabian Society |
G. D. H. Cole