Harold Joseph Laski (30 June 1893 – 24 March 1950) was a British political theorist, economist, author, and lecturer. 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 labour 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 Britain's most influential intellectual spokesman for Socialism in the interwar years. Particularly, his teaching greatly influenced men such as Jawaharlal Nehru who later became leaders of new nations in Asia and Africa as the British Empire was dissolved. He was perhaps the most influential intellectual in the Labour Party, especially for those on the left who shared his trust and hope in 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. With a keen commitment to human liberty and equality for the working classes, he never resolved the tension between his support for liberalism and Socialism. The tension left him increasingly pessimistic about the future of democracy.
Harold Laski was born in Manchester on 30 June 1893 to Nathan Laski and Sarah Laski (born Frankenstein). He had a disabled sister named Mabel. His elder brother was Neville Laski while a cousin was the founder of the Royal Court Theatre and father of the author and publisher Anthony Blond. Nathan Laski was a Jewish cotton merchant and a leader of the Liberal Party.
Harold did his schooling at 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. In 1914, he obtained a degree in History from New College, Oxford. 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 and also started lecturing 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 invited often 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, 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 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.
As a lecturer, Laski was brilliant, but he would alienate his audience by humiliating people who asked questions. However he was popular amongst his students, and was especially influential among Asian and African students who attended LSE. Describing Laski's popularity, Kingsley Martin wrote in 1968:
Ralph Miliband, another student of Laski, praised his teaching as follows:
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 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, he said in a radio address that the Catholic Church opposed democracy, for which he was criticized. He thought 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, woman 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 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 and the Communist Party of Great Britain 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 leaders, 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 defendant 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:
Though he continued to work for the Labour party until his death, 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 contracted influenza and died in London on 24 March 1950, aged 56.
Laski's Biographer Michael Newman writes:
- 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.
Deane has identified five distinct phases of Laski's thought that he never integrated: 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, most famously, his prize student, V.K. Krishna Menon. According to John Kenneth Galbraith, "the center 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:
Laski also educated the outspoken Chinese intellectual and journalist Chu Anping at LSE. Anping was later prosecuted by the Chinese Communist regime of the 1960s.
Laski was an inspiration for Ellsworth Toohey, the antagonist in Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead (1943).
- Basis of Vicarious Liability 1916 26 Yale Law Journal 105
- Studies in the Problem of Sovereignty 1917
- Authority in the Modern State 1919, ISBN 1-58477-275-1
- Political Thought in England from Locke to Bentham 1920
- The Foundations of Sovereignty, and other essays 1921
- Karl Marx 1921
- The state in the new social order 1922
- The position of parties and the right of dissolution 1924
- A Grammar of Politics, 1925
- Socialism and freedom 1925
- The problem of a second chamber 1925
- Communism, 1927
- The British Cabinet : a study of its personnel, 1801-1924 1928
- Liberty in the Modern State, 1930
- "The Dangers of Obedience and Other Essays" 1930
- The limitations of the expert 1931
- Democracy in Crisis 1933
- The State in Theory and Practice, 1935, The Viking Press
- The Rise of Liberalism, 1936
- The American Presidency, 1940
- Where Do We Go From Here? A Proclamation of British Democracy 1940
- Reflections on the Revolution of our Time , 1943
- Faith, Reason, and Civilisation, 1944
- The American Democracy, 1948, The Viking Press
- The Rise of European Liberalism