Harold Laski, the second of the three children of Nathan Laski (1863–1941) and his wife, Sarah Frankenstein (1869–1945), was born in Manchester on 30th June, 1893. His father was a successful cotton exporter and a leading local figure in the Liberal Party.
Laski was educated at Manchester Grammar School. His biographer, Michael Newman, pointed out: "From the age of eleven Laski attended Manchester Grammar School, where he soon revealed his precocious intellect, his ability to read and absorb the contents of books at immense speed and to write in an authoritative and witty way. He was also already an accomplished speaker, who could debate on equal terms with adults."
Laski won an exhibition to read history at New College, but later transferred to science. On 1st August, 1911, he and Frida Kerry eloped to Scotland. This created conflict with his parents who were totally opposed to intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles. After leaving Oxford University he lectured at McGill University (1914-16), Harvard University (1916-1920) and Yale University (1919-20) and contributed to the New Republic magazine. His support of left-wing causes resulted in his vilification as a "Bolshevik" and also precipitated antisemitic attacks.
In 1920 he joined the staff of the London School of Economics and six years later became professor of political science. A brilliant lecturer, Laski had a tremendous influence over his students. Kingsley Martin wrote: "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."
Another student, Ralph Miliband, added: "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."
Ella Winter agreed that he was a brilliant lecturer but had the ability to undermine your intellectual confidence: "Harold Laski tutored me during my last year; always invigorating and original, his acute mind could penetrate all one's defenses and make one feel small. As students left his house one after another at the end of a discussion session. Laski would comment with a shrug: Second-class mind. I tried to outstay the rest so he couldn't thus finish me off."
Laski was also the author of several books including Studies in the Problem of Sovereignty (1917), Authority in the Modern State (1919), Political Thought in England from Locke to Bentham (1920), Karl Marx (1921), A Grammar of Politics (1925), Communism (1927), Liberty in the Modern State (1930), The Dangers of Obedience (1930), Democracy in Crisis (1933), The State in Theory and Practice (1935) and The Rise of Liberalism (1936). breakthrough."
Michael Newman, the author of Harold Laski: A Political Biography (1993) has argued that: "Laski tried to elaborate a socialist theory and to apply this to constitutional practice, economic organization, and national sovereignty, outlining the necessary reforms in each sphere. Because he believed that the structure of inequality permeated all the institutions of society he now argued that only the exercise of state power would be effective in bringing about change. He also saw a need for a party, armed with a doctrine and a programme, to take control of the government and direct the process of reform. Nevertheless, he still adhered to a vision of participation and creativity at grass-roots level, urging an acceptance of federal authority and international controls over the nation-state. And his underlying liberalism remained evident in his stress on the fundamental importance of the individual and the sanctity of personal conscience."
In 1936 Laski joined with Victor Gollancz and John Strachey, the Labour MP, to form the Left Book Club. The main aim was to spread socialist ideas and to resist the rise of fascism in Britain. Beginning with a membership of 10,000, numbers rose to 50,000 by 1939. The most important book published by the Left Book Club, was The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell in 1937. The success of the club encouraged socialists to believe there was a market for a left-wing weekly. Laski now joined forces with Gollancz, Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan, George Strauss and Ellen Wilkinson to start publishing a journal they decided to call Tribune.
Although a strong critic of the leadership of the party, Laski became chairman of the Labour Party in 1945. However, his left-wing views meant that he clashed with the prime minister, Clement Attlee. As Herbert Morrison pointed out: "Laski had considerable influence over the years in Labour policy and planning. His work at the London School of Economics justified much confidence in his views. He could always see the other side of an argument. If he had lived I think he would have found his real place in the House of Lords... Attlee, however, turned the idea down. He did not like Laski."
Ralph Miliband has argued: "He (Laski) did not underestimate how heavily the legacy of the past must affect any attempt to reach understanding with the Soviet Union. Nor did he fail to see how much Russian policies increased the difficulties of such an understanding. But he also believed that, when all possible emphasis had been laid on Russia's share of responsibility for the tragic climate of the post-war era, it remained true that one of the essential causes of the postwar tensions was the determination of the West to pursue its ancient and futile crusade against the idea which Russia had come to embody. And it was one of his most bitter disappointments that a Labour Government should have been willing to pursue foreign policies which only had meaning in terms of an acceptance of the values implicit in such a crusade. The first duty of a Labour Government, he insisted, was to come to terms, despite all difficulties, with the Communist world."