Harold Laski

Timofei Mikhailov

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."

Harold Laski
Lord Rothermere with Adolf Hitler

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."

Harold Laski died on 24th March 1950 at St Mary's Hospital in Paddington, from a burst abscess on the lung.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Kingsley Martin heard visiting lecturer, Harold Laski, while studying at Cambridge University.

Harold Laski was just back from Harvard, where he had been much abused as a 'Red' because he had supported the Boston police strike. 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. His lectures amounted to little in substance if one tried to write them down, but they made every student excited about the subject.

(2) Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (1964)

I now saw H. G. Wells frequently. After dinner friends arrived, among Professor Laski, who was still young-looking. Harold was a most brilliant orator. I heard him speak to the American Bar Association in California, and he talked unhesitatingly and brilliantly for an hour without a note. At H. G.'s flat that night, Harold told me of the amazing innovations in the philosophy of socialism. He said that the slightest acceleration in speed translates into terrific social differences.

(3) Ralph Miliband, Harold Laski, Clare Market Review (1950)

His lectures taught more, much more than political science. They taught a faith that ideas mattered, that knowledge was important and its pursuit exciting. I like to remember him in the early days of the war, when the School was in Cambridge. He would arrive every week from London and come straight to School from the station. The winter was bitter and train carriages unheated. He would appear in his blue overcoat and grotesquely shaped black hat, his cheeks blue with cold, teeth chattering, and queue up with the rest of us for a cup of foul but hot coffee, go up to the seminar room, crack a joke at the gathering of students who were waiting for him, sit down, light a cigarette and plunge into controversy and argument; and a dreary stuffy room would come to life and there would only be a group of people bent on the elucidation of ideas: We did not feel overwhelmed by his knowledge and learning, and we did not feel so because he did not know the meaning of condescension. We never felt compelled to agree with him, because it was so obvious that he loved a good fight and did not hide behind his years and experience. He was not impatient or bored or superciliously amused... 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.

(4) Ralph Miliband, The Political Ideas of Harold Laski, Stanford Law Review (December, 1955)

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. Nothing that has happened since he died suggests that duty to be less imperative or less urgent.

(5) Herbert Morrison, An Autobiography (1960)

In the midst of the (1945) campaign came the Laski incident. Laski - I always liked him - the new chairman of the National Executive, made a speech in which he suggested that Attlee's presence at Potsdam with Churchill was just a gesture; whatever was decided would not necessarily be confirmed by a future Labour Government because the Executive Committee would have to be consulted.

Nevertheless, I must confess that Laski's speech had been ill-advised. We in the Party had grown used to his views expressed in speech of a formal character. 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. He told me that if he was offered a peerage he would gladly accept. I urged the idea on Attlee, for although I often disagreed with Laski I respected him as a man, his ability and sincerity.

Attlee, however, turned the idea down. He did not like Laski, a factor which made the latter's ill-advised speech on the eve of Potsdam more annoying in Attlee's eyes than the words of it warranted.

(6) Michael Newman, Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left (2002)

When Ralph Miliband had been Laski's student he had been very critical of aspects of his political stance despite his affection for him. He, like many of the Communist students, had believed that Laski had been far too committed to the Labour Party and the parliamentary system. But, apart from his debt of gratitude, two factors led him to re-appraise his former mentor after his death. First, Miliband's increasing distance from the Soviet Union and the Communist movement drew him towards Laski as another figure who was, to an extent, an independent Marxist. Secondly, while he might once have regarded him as too "moderate" politically, after his death it became clear that Laski represented a form of socialism which was now regarded as dangerously extreme by most of the Labour leadership and the academic establishment. He therefore saw it as quite crucial to maintain Laski's legacy both inside and outside LSE. When Kingsley Martin's biography and the Holmes-Laski letters were published, he took the opportunity to write a very sympathetic article about him, and when Herbert Deane savaged Laski's reputation as a political theorist, Miliband leaped to his defence. And it may well have been his fury about the Deane book which now led him to undertake a full study of the work of his former professor.

His object, he explained, was to examine Laski's main ideas on socialism, but the interest here is that his judgments provide a very clear insight into his own thinking at the time. First, he suggested that, although the growing intensity of the social and economic crisis from the mid-1920s had led Laski to become progressively more favourable to Marx's diagnosis, his Marxism "involved much less than the acceptance as scientifically true of that vast, all-embracing structure known as dialectical materialism". He was not "a convert to a new secular faith" for "historical materialism to him was a supremely useful tool of analysis, not a mental straight-jacket". Miliband clearly endorsed this attitude.

Secondly, Laski feared that propertied interests would do everything they possibly could to subvert a Labour government elected on a socialist programme and, in such circumstances, fundamental conflict would make impossible the continuation of the normal processes of constitutional government. He never believed that this was inevitable, but thought the likelihood was extremely high, and that Labour could not afford to disregard such fears. Miliband maintained that this position was still valid, although he thought that there was some encouragement to be drawn from the experience of the post-war years because Labour's power and influence were far greater than had been the case in the 1930s. Thirdly, although Laski had proclaimed himself a Marxist from the 1930s, he was never a Leninist, refusing to
accept Lenin's assertion of the inevitability of violent revolution or his insistence that the most imperative duty of socialists was to hasten its occurrence. Laski saw Lenin's strategy as the outcome of the circumstances in a non-democratic society, and consistently condemned the attempts of the Third International to bind all working-class parties to Bolshevik theory and practice. He was insistent that socialism would not necessarily be reached by the same road in countries in which there was a liberal tradition. This, Miliband suggested, made Laski's writings seem more contradictory and ambiguous than would have been the case had he adhered consistently either to the Leninist or to the gradualist viewpoint. But he would then also have been a much less interesting thinker.