Laski, Harold J.

views updated May 29 2018

Laski, Harold J.



Harold Joseph Laski (1893-1950), teacher, political scientist, and British Labour party leader, was born in Manchester, England, the second son of Nathan and Sarah Laski; his father was a prosperous cotton shipper, a prominent Liberal, and a leader of the orthodox Jewish community. The young Laski’s intellectual gifts and his precocity were demonstrated by an article he wrote when he was 16 years old and still a student at the Manchester Grammar School. The article, “On the Scope of Eugenics,” which appeared in the Westminster Review in July 1910, called forth a letter of congratulation from Sir Francis Galton. For six months after he left school, Laski pursued his interest in eugenics by studying with Karl Pearson at University College in London.

In the summer of 1911 he broke with his family by marrying a Gentile, Frida Kerry, who was eight years older than he, and in the fall of that year he began his undergraduate studies at New College, Oxford. After a year of reading science, he shifted to history; he studied under H. A. L. Fisher and Ernest Barker and was strongly influenced by the writings of F. W. Maitland. During his undergraduate days, Laski was active in the women’s suffrage movement, in which his wife was deeply interested. In this connection he became a close friend of H. W. Nevinson and George Lansbury, then editor of the Labour newspaper, the Daily Herald. After receiving his degree in 1914, Laski spent the summer months writing articles for the Herald on Ireland and on constitutional issues that affected labor. When his attempt to enlist in the armed forces ended in medical rejection, he accepted a post as lecturer in history at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. While at McGill, he wrote his first book, Studies in the Problem of Sovereignty (1917).

Two years later, in 1916, as a result of a meeting with Felix Frankfurter, who became a lifelong friend, Laski accepted a post as instructor in history at Harvard University. For the next four years, Laski was a stimulating teacher and a lively member of the Harvard intellectual community. He wrote several books during this period, including Authority in the Modern State (1919) and The Foundations of Sovereignty, and Other Essays (1921); in these works he argued against the myth of the sovereign, omnicompetent state and defended the doctrine of political pluralism in a series of historical and analytical essays. The state, he maintained, is not the supreme association to whose will all other groups must bow, but is only one among many groups—corporations, unions, churches, societies of all kinds—with which it is engaged in a constant struggle for men’s loyalty and obedience. Laski’s pluralistic view of the state reflected the influence of Gierke, Maitland, and Figgis, as well as the antistatist and anti-idealist currents in political thought and action that were strong before and after World War I. Even at this period, Laski’s primary concern was with the freedom of workers’ organizations from control by the “sovereign state,” and in October 1919, he gave striking evidence of this concern by a public defense of the Boston policemen who were then engaged in a strike that had outraged the leaders of the community [see PLURALISM].

In 1920 Laski left Harvard and his many American friends, chief among whom was, perhaps, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, with whom he maintained close touch until Holmes’s death. Laski accepted a post at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where, in 1926, he succeeded Graham Wallas as professor of political science. Laski taught at the School until his death 24 years later; he was so well known and so influential among students that his name and the London School became almost synonymous terms in the minds of many people, especially of students from America and from Asia and Africa.

After his return to England, Laski became increasingly involved in politics and political discussions and in writing for the Nation. He was active in the election campaign of December 1923, which led to the first Labour minority government. Yet he found time for the teaching and counseling of students and for writing his most comprehensive study of politics, A Grammar of Politics (1925). In this work he moved away from his earlier pluralism and adopted a position that might be called “socialized Benthamism.” He now accepted the view he had previously rejected, that the state was “the fundamental instrument of society,” and he argued that its purpose was to “satisfy, or organize the satisfaction of, the wants of men on the largest possible scale.” Yet he indicated that he retained a good deal of suspicion of political power by advocating a large measure of decentralization, consultation with organized groups, and restraints on governmental action. This suspicion of state power reflected his belief that in practice its incidence was heavily weighted in favor of the interests of the wealthy and powerful members of society. Laski, now committed to a democratic or Fabian socialism, urged that political democracy was virtually meaningless unless it led forward to “economic democracy” or socialism [seeEconomic Thought, article onSocialist Thought].

From 1925 on, he began to express doubts that the necessary major reforms of the economic and social systems could be attained by the methods of political democracy. In his book Communism (1927), for example, he argued that since the workers no longer accepted capitalism or regarded it as legitimate, the only alternative to revolution was a series of major concessions by the ruling class—acceptance of nationalization of essential industries, sharp curtailment of inheritance rights, comprehensive regulation of private business, and guarantees of adequate wages, working conditions, and educational and welfare opportunities. He was not optimistic about the willingness of capitalists to accept these moves toward a more equal society and to abdicate from power peacefully, and in Liberty in the Modern State (1930) he warned that the price of social conflict is always the destruction of freedom.

With the advent of the great depression, the rise of fascism in Europe, the collapse of the British Labour government in 1931, and the defection of Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden, and James H. Thomas from the party, which left it leaderless and bewildered, Laski’s hopes for a peaceful and ’gradual transition to socialism grew dim, and his doubts about the possibility of achieving socialism by constitutional and democratic means became much more intense. In a series of works written during the 1930s, such as Democracy in Crisis (1933), The State in Theory and Practice (1935), The Rise of European Liberalism (1936), and Parliamentary Government in England (1938), he abandoned his Fabianism in favor of the Marxist view that the contradictions of capitalism were insoluble and that a democratic political system was incompatible with a capitalism in crisis. On the basis of British, French, German, and Italian experience, Laski now argued that once the operations of political democracy threatened the continued existence of capitalism and interfered with the pursuit of profits, the ruling class would destroy democracy and the labor movement and would initiate an authoritarian regime. The liberal and socialist alternatives to the communist doctrine of the necessity of violent revolution would then become untenable, and revolutionary socialism and fascism (the political form of capitalism in decay) would thus be left as the only serious contenders for power.

These were the years of Laski’s most intense involvement in politics. From 1937 to 1949 he was a member of the National Executive of the Labour party, where he was often critical of the moderate views and tactics of the party’s leaders. During the late 1930s his public influence probably reached its high point; this was the period of the Left Book Club, directed by Victor Gollancz, John Strachey, and Laski. During the Spanish Civil War he joined such left-wing Labourites as Sir Stafford Cripps and Aneurin Bevan in the Unity Campaign and the popular front movement of all antifascist groups, which was condemned by the Labour party leaders and by the party conference in 1937.

From the fall of 1938 to the end of the summer of 1939 Laski was in the United States, where he taught at the University of Washington and delivered at Indiana University the lectures that were later published as The American Presidency (1940). Shortly after his return to England the war began. The London School of Economics was evacuated to Cambridge, and during the war years Laski divided his time between teaching, assisting Clement Attlee after he became deputy prime minister under Churchill in 1940, and traveling around the country to address Labour party meetings and give lectures at military camps. Although overwork led to a serious nervous breakdown in 1943, he soon resumed his many activities and his writing. His major wartime publications were Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time (1943) and Faith, Reason, and Civilization (1944); in these books, and in many articles and speeches, he urged the leaders of the Labour party to insist that the Churchill coalition government commit itself during the war to a program of major social and economic reforms that would be carried out when peace was restored. In the unity of groups and classes and the patriotic enthusiasm of the war years he saw an opportunity, which would never be repeated, of achieving what he called “a revolution by consent.” If this opportunity were missed because the Labour leaders were unwilling to threaten to resign from the coalition government, the postwar world would be neither any better nor more hopeful than the world of the 1920s and would again move toward the choice that had confronted Europe in the 1930s—reaction or revolution, fascism or communism. Laski was criticized by many people, including some of his friends in England and America, for his wartime attacks on Churchill and for his criticisms of the inadequacies and weaknesses of Attlee and other Labour party leaders.

Although the electoral victory of Labour in 1945 was a great satisfaction to Laski, the triumph was marred for him by the growing tensions on the international scene, particularly between the United States and the Soviet Union, and by his failure to win a libel action that he had instituted during the 1945 campaign, when several newspapers reported that he had made a speech in which he advocated violent revolution in Great Britain. He wrote a long book on American society and politics, The American Democracy (1948), which struck many observers, including some liberals, as a curiously doctrinaire and outdated portrait of the American scene. Early in 1949, Laski made his final visit to the United States; in the course of a five-week tour of the country he delivered, under the auspices of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, the series of lectures later published as Trade Unions in the New Society (1949). In these lectures he urged the American trade unions to move forward to the creation of a strong labor party in order to safeguard and develop the American democratic tradition.

Although he had resigned in 1949 from the national executive of the Labour party and was worn out and ill, Laski campaigned strenuously in the 1950 general election. He died suddenly, only a few weeks after the election, on March 24, 1950.

The influence that Laski exerted by his teaching and writing was probably greatest in the 1930s; during the years of depression and the growing menace of fascism and international war, he was an impassioned advocate of socialism who combined social and economic radicalism with a deep attachment to many traditional British and American institutions and values. In this period his influence among students in both Britain and the United States was particularly great. After World War II and especially since his death, his reputation as a political theorist and analyst has been higher among students and intellectuals in Asian and African countries than among similar groups in the West.

Herbert A. Deane

[For the historical context of Laski’s work, see Socialismand the biographies of Figgis; Gierke; Mait-land.]


(1916-1935) 1953 HOLMES, OLIVER W.; and LASKI, HAROLD J. Holmes-Laski Letters: The Correspondence of Mr. Justice Holmes and Harold J. Laski, 1916-1935. Edited by Mark DeWolfe Howe, with a foreword by Felix Frankfurter. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Atheneum.

1917 Studies in the Problem of Sovereignty. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

1919 Authority in the Modern State. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

(1921) 1931 The Foundations of Sovereignty, and Other Essays. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

(1925) 1957 A Grammar of Politics. 4th ed. London Allen ’ Unwin.

(1927) 1935 Communism. London: Butterworth.

(1930) 1961 Liberty in the Modern State. 3d ed. London: Allen ’ Unwin.

(1933) 1934 Democracy in Crisis. London: Allen ’ Unwin.

(1935) 1956 The State in Theory and Practice. London: Allen ’ Unwin.

(1936) 1958 The Rise of European Liberalism: An Essay in Interpretation. London: Allen ’ Unwin. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Barnes and Noble.

1938 Parliamentary Government in England: A Commentary. New York: Viking. 1940 The American Presidency: An Interpretation. New York: Harper. → A paperback edition was published in 1958 by Grosset and Dunlap.

1943 Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time. New York: Viking; London; Allen ’ Unwin.

1944 Faith, Reason, and Civilization: An Essay in Historical Analysis. New York: Viking.

1948 The American Democracy: A Commentary and an Interpretation. New York: Viking.

(1949) 1950 Trade Unions in the New Society. London: Allen ’ Unwin.

(1951) 1962 Reflections on the Constitution: The House of Commons, the Cabinet [and] the Civil Service. Manchester (England) Univ. Press.


Deane, Herbert A. 1955 The Political Ideas of Harold J. Laski. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Elliott, William Y. 1928 The Pragmatic Revolt in Politics: Syndicalism, Fascism, and the Constitutional State. New York: Macmillan.

Magid, Henry M. 1941 English Political Pluralism: The Problem of Freedom and Organization. Columbia University Studies in Philosophy, No. 2. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, MARTIN, KINGSLEY 1953 Harold Laski, 1893-1950: A Biographical Memoir. New York: Viking; London: Gollancz.

Harold J. Laski

views updated Jun 08 2018

Harold J. Laski

Harold J. Laski (1893-1950) was an English political scientist and Labour party leader. Active as a teacher and political theorist, he was also one of the leading writers on democratic socialism.

Harold Laski was born on June 30, 1893, in Manchester, the son of a Jewish cotton shipper. Though his father occupied a position of leadership in the Jewish community, young Laski declared his independence of family and community alike at the age of 18 by marrying a Gentile. In the same year, 1911, he began his undergraduate education at Oxford.

At Oxford, Laski began his studies in science and then switched to history, studying under some of the leading Oxford historians of his day, including Sir Ernest Barker and H. A. L. Fisher. He formed close relationships with a number of important leaders of the Labour party, and wrote articles for the Daily Herald after receiving his degree in 1914.

From 1916 to 1920 Laski taught history at Harvard University, receiving his position partly through the influence of his friend Felix Frankfurter, who was then at Harvard Law School and later was a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Laski also formed a lasting friendship with "the Great Dissenter," Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, of the Supreme Court. During this period Laski produced a number of major works on the nature, powers, and limitations of the modern sovereign state. His chief concern was that the workers should be able to maintain their freedom in the face of the growing demands of the modern state.

In 1920 Laski accepted a position at the London School of Economics and taught political science there until his death 30 years later. He became one of the most influential teachers at the London School and attracted a large number of students from around the world. He also managed to fit considerable political activity on behalf of the Labour party into a crowded schedule of teaching and writing. He campaigned for Labour candidates, was one of the directors of the influential Left Book Club, and was active in the antifascist popular front movement during the Spanish Civil War. The height of his political career was from 1937 to 1949, when he served as a member of the National Executive of the Labour party.

Through the years Laski grew pessimistic about the possibility of achieving socialism through constitutional and democratic means but continued to urge such a course in Britain and the United States. In his writings he argued that Britain and the United States still offered hope that socialism might be attained and democratic traditions in the two countries strengthened and preserved. These ideas were primarily set forth in two of his later major works: Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time (1943) and The American Democracy (1948).

Laski died in London on March 24, 1950. Characteristically, although he had been ill, he had continued teaching, writing, and even political campaigning until shortly before his death.

Further Reading

An authoritative and sympathetic biography of Laski is Kingsley Martin, Harold Laski, 1893-1950: A Biographical Memoir (1953). A definitive, scholarly treatment of Laski's contribution as a political scientist is in Herbert A. Deane, The Political Ideas of Harold J. Laski (1955).

Additional Sources

Eastwood, G. G., Harold Laski, London: Mowbrays, 1977.

Kramnick, Isaac, Harold Laski: a life on the left, New York: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1993. □