From about 1920 to about 1950, Harold Laski was one of the best-known academic intellectuals in the English-speaking world. After Oxford and after two relatively obscure years at McGill University in Montreal, he came to Harvard in 1916, where he remained for four years. He might have remained for the rest of his career, for he dazzled the academic world of the East Coast and particularly of Harvard with his exceptional learning, his spoken and written fluency, his deference to his elders, and his delightfully pleasing personality. He won the admiration and affection of Felix Frankfurter (who discovered him), Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Louis Brandeis, and he stood very well with Roscoe Pound, Charles MacIlwain, and other great figures of the Harvard of that day. He was also greatly cherished by the first generation of the guiding spirits of The New Republic, which was founded in 1912.
It all ended in an uproar when Laski, with his characteristic knack for arousing a furor and for gaining public attention, became a very visible partisan of the police in the Boston police strike of 1919. This brought down on him the denunciations of numerous journalists, some businessmen, and a few professors; he was saved from a vehemently demanded dismissal by the refusal of A. Lawrence Lowell, then the president of Harvard University, to allow Laski’s academic freedom to be restricted. Laski might well have been able to stay on at Harvard, but he was invited to become a lecturer at the London School of Economics, thanks to the support of Graham Wallas, at that time a leading figure among Anglo-American liberal intellectuals and a professor of political science at the School. In a short time Laski became a reader, and in 1927, at the age of thirty-four, he became a professor, which he remained until his death in 1950 at the age of fifty-seven.
In his years at Harvard, Laski’s reputation for erudition, originality, and even depth was based on his prolific scholarly production. Between the ages of twenty-three and twenty-seven, he published at least two books, a number of articles in law reviews, and a monograph. He proclaimed himself to be a “pluralist,” an enemy of the omnipotent and omnicompetent, omniprovident and omniscient state. His views were closely akin to those of the French syndicalists H. Pelloutier and V. Griffuehles, the English guild socialists G. D. H. Cole, A. R. Orage, and A. J. Penty, and a professor of law at Bordeaux, Léon Duguit. He claimed to have derived his ideas from the great British legal historian Frederick Maitland and the sagacious and almost inhumanly erudite German legal historian Otto von Gierke. In the small circle of Boston Brahmins and Jewish Americans—Morris Raphael Cohen should be included among them—Laski was made much of. They were not entirely ignorant and they were surely very intelligent. They thought they had a great treasure in Laski. He did not disagree with them.
Perhaps I ought to add as a surmise that Laski’s physical appearance added to his distinction.
Perhaps I ought to add as a surmise that Laski’s physical appearance added to his distinction. He was short and extremely thin; he had narrow shoulders joined by a thin neck to a very small head with black hair slicked down and divided in the middle by a wide white avenue. He had a small black mustache. His bright black eyes, seen through black horn-rimmed spectacles, gave him the appearance of an adolescent prodigy. That he was indeed. In some respects, that is what he remained over his entire life.
Laski’s biographers, Professor Isaac Kramnick and Mr. Barry Sheerman, have done as well by him as they could. They are obviously not unqualified admirers and they do not overstate the case for him. They concede throughout that Laski did not always bend himself to tell the truth and nothing but the truth; in the course of time, Laski’s fabrications became one of his main features. The biographers treat it as a foible. They do not ask whether somewhat lighthearted respect for truth might not have entered into his more serious writings. They say too little about the intellectual qualities of Laski’s academic writings. The strongest parts of the book are those that describe his political activities.
In the end, Messrs. Kramnick and Sheerman quote a letter from Laski’s devoted and beloved wife, Frida, in which she says that Laski “lived a full life,” that they “were wonderfully happy,” and that they had had “a lifetime of adventure and interest.” That is not a strong conclusion to a six-hundred-page book on one of the most eminent figures of Anglo-American intellectual life of the first half of the present century.
Much of what they tell has been fairly well known to those who knew him, and sometimes they tell less than they should have told. They have, however, done a service even to those who knew him and who lived through his times by reminding them of things they once knew and have since forgotten; they have also produced some quite new and very interesting information, especially about Laski’s relations with Jews, Judaism, and Zionism.
When Laski returned to England, the London School of Economics was just beginning its illustrious period under the direction of William Beveridge, who many years later became the author of the “Beveridge Report,” which provided for everyone “from the cradle to the grave.” For twenty-five years the School had been a sort of night college for ambitious civil servants in Whitehall and no less ambitious clerks in the City (the School was located about midway between these two sections of London). It was a darling of the Webbs and, at the beginning, of George Bernard Shaw—its original premises had been in his house. Although before the First World War the School had had some distinguished teachers and directors, it was not taken seriously in the academic life of Great Britain and it was scarcely known to American academics and publicists. But once Beveridge, who had been an outstanding civil servant under Lloyd George, took the School in hand, it became one of the major centers of social science studies in the world. It attracted students from all over: from the United States and Canada, from India in large numbers, and, a little later, from Africa and China. In short order it added to its staff R. H. Tawney, Eileen Power, Lionel Robbins, Friedrich von Hayek, Charles K. Webster, Bronislaw Malinowski, et al. It became a hive of learned men and women. In economic theory and economic history and in anthropology, it became renowned.
Although it was not Oxford, which Laski would probably have preferred, the School was a very satisfactory place for an ambitious young scholar. Laski soon built up a fairly good department at a time when political science was scarcely studied in Great Britain.
Laski himself soon became one of the brightest stars in the School’s galaxy.
Laski himself soon became one of the brightest stars in the School’s galaxy. He was a very remarkable lecturer, a speaker of unbroken fluency, patterning himself on the elaborate style of Victorian parliamentarians. He never paused to hem or haw, he never left a sentence unfinished, and he never spoke from notes or a script. His voice was clear and carrying. He enunciated every syllable; he never seemed to lose his way. His lectures were replete with an easily borne and confidently dispensed erudition. All sorts of authors unknown to his audience were spoken of with familiarity. His lectures became a great feature of life at the School; students flocked to them; they loved to hear him and they came to love him too. By the time he became a professor he was also a socialist and that, too, appealed to his innocent students. Later in the 1930s, he announced that he had become a Marxist; that appealed even more to the students of that generation. To his great skill as a lecturer, and his interest in and his knowledge of his students, he added the less worthy charm of making humorously derogatory remarks about his colleagues Robbins and Hayek, who were very antipathetic to socialism and even more so to Marxism. This strengthened further the bond by which his students were attached to him. But as much as anything else, his great kindliness to his students, his generosity, often done secretly but quite properly known through rumors, the fact that he remembered their names and seemed to interest himself in their careers, in which he tried to help them—all this endeared him to them. In addition, his real and fabricated intimacy with the great of the land—and of the United States as well—made him even more attractive to his students.
I surmise that Laski’s teaching probably deteriorated in his later years because his exceptionally retentive memory and his undiminished fluency led him to give up fresh preparation and additional study. Of course, that did not show itself to his students because of the rhetorical excellence of his lectures, and because the students were not yet sophisticated enough. Because they did not remain with him for more than a few years before taking their degrees, they did not discern the downward direction. That he was a famous man, and that he was a disrespector of great figures as well as their proclaimed intimate, more than compensated for the deteriorating intellectual substance of his lectures and books.
Laski’s intellectual deterioration is more evident from his writings than it was from his lectures. In the books, which continued to appear almost uninterruptedly—there were about twenty-five in all—the deterioration is very evident. Laski was never a hard thinker nor was he a ruminator who pondered at length on ever-deepening problems. He either had an immediate answer to a given problem or he dismissed the problem, often with a witty and knowing remark. His early books, Studies in the Problem of Sovereignty (1917), Authority in the Modern State (1919), The Foundations of Sovereignty (1921), and A Grammar of Politics (1925), were serious books; there was also a well-written and well-documented introduction to an edition of A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants, a book written in the sixteenth century. All this before he was thirty-three years of age. These works all showed unmistakable learning in a wide body of the literature of political philosophy in English and French—much less in German or Italian. They were not profound, they had no overtones, but they were clearly expressed. Whatever the superficiality of his analyses, he was certainly a genuine scholar with a very alert and fresh intelligence and exceptional industriousness.
But even then, he seems not to have been a scholar of great accuracy. Laski had a superb memory. It was said that he could read two hundred pages in an hour and could remember most of what he read. He thought that he had a perfect memory, but it was not perfect. He never checked the facts that he cited or the references to the works from which he drew his facts. In his last years he could write an interesting paper with all the semblance of careful study but it was all from the memory of writings read many years earlier, probably not reread since he first read them, and undoubtedly not reread before writing the paper.
Just as he spoke, so he wrote without emendation.
Just as he spoke, so he wrote without emendation. In my own limited experience with him, I never knew him to revise his manuscripts. One manuscript that I saw—a fairly long one—was written out in his tiny handwriting without a single erasure or crossing-out. I have been told that he delivered book-length manuscripts to the publisher in the same condition.
Even if Harold Laski had been aware of the imperfection of his memory, however, he lived a kind of life that would have made it difficult for him to find the time to restudy the more important books he had already read, to read new ones, to produce new lectures based on new preparations, to verify references, and to check footnotes. (I think Laski never had a research assistant.) He was a proud proponent of the traditional style of scholarship done by one individual working alone, in contrast with now common team research or with one person assisted by a staff of younger scholars who are his “dog-robbers.” He did not seek financial support for employing an assistant or secretary. He disliked the influence that philanthropic foundations exercised on the organization of research, i.e., on the new forms of team and assisted research that were beginning to penetrate into the social sciences in the 1920s. At the School, Beveridge was determined to promote this kind of research and to obtain financial support for it from private foundations. This was one of the sources of tension that developed between Beveridge and Laski after a rather happy beginning.
The coming of funds to the London School of Economics from the Rockefeller Foundation and its related foundations was actually a minor matter for Laski. It did not affect him; it was just something to talk and write about. There was something else that affected Laski’s achievements as a scholar and that also affected his relations with Beveridge. This was his very prolific journalistic activity.
From very early on, Laski had been a publicist as well as a scholar. When he was at Harvard, he entered into very close relationships with The New Republic, particularly with Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann. When he returned to England, he became a frequent contributor to The Nation and a friend of the great liberal journalist H. W. Nevinson. This activity soon expanded to the point where Laski wrote fairly brief articles in great numbers for popular newspapers on the Labour side and for many minor and a few important periodicals in which he analyzed recent political developments in Great Britain and the United States. He wrote about British politics from the point of view of a radical—increasingly radical—member of the Labour Party. By the 1930s, these publications ran into the scores and scores in each year. Many of them were very brief and he wrote them very speedily. In them he often wrote disparagingly of the leadership of the Labour Party; he did not spare the Tories either. These articles written from the point of view of a person who wanted every governmental action to be that of a socialist government or at least to be conducive to the realization of socialism.
Laski often put Great Britain as a whole into the dock. His pronouncements aroused severe criticism in the popular press and resentment among businessmen, some of whom were also members of the governing body of the School. Beveridge, who was probably an irritable person in any case, was irritated by Laski’s actions. Beveridge had his heart set on the expansion of the buildings and the work of the School and he wished to raise funds for it from private donors, from businessmen as well as foundations. There was practically no question of raising money from the government for the universities. The new funds had to come from private patrons or they would not come at all. Beveridge was troubled by Laski’s incessant socialist criticism of capitalism, which he feared might reduce the financial patronage that he sought for the School.
There might also have been a more personal element in the tension because Laski became increasingly critical of Mrs. Mair, the secretary of the School, who was on very intimate terms with Beveridge. (They were married to each other as soon as Mrs. Mair’s husband died.)
Nevertheless, Beveridge was unalterably determined to protect Laski’s freedom to say whatever he wished to say in political matters and defended him against the intimations of various persons that Laski should not be allowed to continue as a teacher. This was a difficult dilemma for Beveridge: on the one side, he would allow no infringements of Laski’s academic freedom; on the other side, he was much annoyed by Laski’s “outside” activities.
When he was finally brought to book by Beveridge, Laski responded by stating that he spent many hours every day at the School, intimating that he was not stinting his duties there. He was probably right about this: he seems never to have missed a scheduled class; he also saw numerous students, attended meetings of the various boards of studies of which he was a member, and generally did his ordinary duty by the School. (Whether he did it as a scholar is another matter.) He was also a considerable asset to the School; he helped to make its reputation as a major center of the social sciences. He also made it notorious as a place of “Red agitation.” (He was in fact the only person who could, although even then only with some exaggeration, be called an “agitator”; the socialists in the School, R. H. Tawney, H. L. Beales, W. A. Robson, and H. R. G. Greaves, were mild Christian or Fabian socialists.)
Beveridge was successful in his resistance to those who would have abridged Laski’s academic freedom, but he did obtain from Laski a promise to reduce his publicistic writing. I doubt whether this gave Laski any notable increase in time for his scholarly studies. All through the latter 1920s and throughout the 1930s and the years of the war, Laski was extremely active in the affairs of the Labour Party, attending and addressing conferences, lecturing to workers education classes, and lecturing to the broader public. He was extraordinarily active whenever there was a general election. The Labour Party had practically no other speakers of equal devotion and popularity at its electoral meetings. In the second half of the 1930s, he added to his tightly packed schedule activities as a member of the Socialist League, a radical group under the leadership of Sir Stafford Cripp within the Labour Party. For a number of years he was a member of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party. For one very important year he was its chairman. He occupied that position during the year of the dissolution of the coalition that had governed Great Britain under Winston Churchill. After the formation of the Labour government in 1945, he busied himself so attentively and intrusively with the affairs of the Labour Party and the government that he had to be brusquely reminded that it was the government that made policy, not the National Executive Committee of the Party. And of course, despite his promise to reduce his publicistic writing, he still did an extraordinarily large amount of it. All these activities, taken altogether, amounted to a very strenuous mode of life. It left little time for scholarship.
Laski was a frequent visitor to the United States, especially to the eastern states, where he was an enthusiastically welcomed guest in many colleges and universities. At the time of the New Deal, he again felt much at home in the United States, as he thought that Franklin Roosevelt was ending the capitalistic system. He wrote prolifically in and about the United States. Everywhere he was surrounded by collectivistic liberal Anglophiles; such people were very strong in the States in the period between the wars, and after the Second World War, they were linked with plain fellow-traveling. During this period, Laski saw his old friends and was again embraced by The New Republic. He made, however, only one new intellectual friend, Max Lerner; this was rather a comedown from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Felix Frankfurter, Louis Brandeis, and Walter Lippmann.
Toward the end of the 1930s, Laski declared himself to be a Marxist.
Toward the end of the 1930s, Laski declared himself to be a Marxist. That was true only in a limited sense; he never avowed any devotion to dialectical materialism or to the theory of increasing impoverishment or to any of Marx’s economic theory or to any of the other nonsensical Marxist tenets. But he did lay great emphasis on the primacy of “class interests” in the determination of governmental policies. He had however been saying that over and over again, long before he became a Marxist.
The real change occurred in his more frequent use of the word “revolution.” There is no doubt that he liked the idea, whether simply as a means to “shock the bourgeoisie” or because he liked the overtones of blood and thunder. He did not say that the “working class” or the Labour Party should make a revolution; he only said that it was probable that they would make a revolution if the government, dominated by property owners, conservative politicians et al., and the civil service, recruited from Oxford and Cambridge, resisted a socialist program enacted by a democratically elected socialist government.
This was a regrettably foolish proposition that he repeated quite frequently. Whatever the niceties of any explanation that would refute accusations that he sought to promote violent revolution, it is a plain fact that he did indeed entertain with some sympathy the prospect of a socialist revolution in Great Britain.
Winston Churchill took advantage of Laski’s ambiguous views about revolution and made them a central issue of the Tory campaign in the general election of 1945. After the immense victory of the Labour Party, Laski thought he would revenge himself on those publishers who had reproduced and affirmed Churchill’s argument. He therefore instituted a libel suit against a provincial newspaper, probably intending that, once victorious in this minor suit, he would take similar action against the prosperous lords of the gutterpress of London, who had given far greater prominence to the accusations against him than that petty provincial paper had done.
This action against the provincial paper was the greatest misfortune of his career. His adversary engaged the services of the leading libel lawyer of the country, Sir Patrick Hastings. Hastings seized the initiative and, following a procedure of contemptuous rudeness and exercising great skill in all the dubious practices of sharp-witted lawyers, humiliated Laski and hamstrung him from the very beginning. The eloquent Laski was badgered and insulted throughout the trial and he was unable to produce any rhetorically effective counter-arguments to offset Sir Patrick Hastings’s diabolical skill. Accordingly, the jury found for the defendant. Laski was left with the humiliation of defeat where he had counted on a brilliant victory. He was also left with the necessity of meeting the legal costs of the defense.
This was a crushing blow to Laski; he was degraded and defeated and was placed under a financial burden that would have required that he sell the library of which he was so proud. Fortunately for him, friends and admirers came to his rescue and the sale of the library was averted. But his poor showing in the interchange with Hastings was an almost mortal blow. It coincided with the Labour Party’s pursuit of a policy very contrary to what Laski wanted.
Laski hated Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin’s determination to support the American policy of containment of the Soviet Union. Laski was never a fellow-traveler of the ordinary sort. He admired what he thought were the economic and social achievements of the Soviet Union but he also criticized, quite forthrightly, the utter suppression of intellectual and political freedom there. He was always critical of although not wholly unsympathetic with the Communist Party of Great Britain. His published statements about the United States after the Second World War did not differ greatly from those made by unreserved fellow-travelers. His affectionate and intimate relations with Felix Frankfurter, the friendship of which he was most proud, became more distant. He was also told in very firm terms by the leaders of the Labour government that he was talking too much and was giving a false impression. Laski’s defeat in the libel suit and his political relegation by the Labour government for which he campaigned so energetically greatly damaged him. Although he continued with his usual eloquence to teach and to see his students with the same kindness as before, the life went out of him. Likewise, he continued to write but more emptily than before. His death marked the end of the “age of Laski” at the London School of Economics. Michael Oakeshott, a genuine and deep ruminator of original conservative convictions, not at all a party-man, was elected to succeed Laski as a professor of political science. He proved to be as beloved a teacher as Laski had ever been and except among members of the teaching staff and older graduate students, who remembered him with affection, Laski’s name ceased to count. The new generation of students knew practically nothing of him or his work. The fact is that his work had been fading steadily.
Today, all that is left of Harold Laski is his books; his teaching and his personal qualities are remembered only by those who were his pupils or by the very few of his still-surviving colleagues who were starting out around the end of the Second World War. His publicistic writings can interest only academic biographers and writers of doctoral dissertations; his public lectures are of course long since gone. For those who would see a monument, looking at the books of his last two decades reveals no such monument.
It is not unusual for an eminence of one generation to be turned against by the next one. Anatole France’s fortunes are much like those of Harold Laski except that some of Anatole France’s writings can still be read, even though the best of them are fairly faint. He has nevertheless recently been reprinted in La Pléiade. I doubt whether similar distinction will come to any of the works of Harold Laski, although the better ones of his young years at Harvard are still worthy of being read.
Laski’s biography had to be done, and Professor Kramnick and Mr. Sheerman have done it in a scholarly way. It would have been better had they placed Laski more clearly in his intellectual environment and been a bit more forthcoming about the merits, such as they were, of his intellectual achievements.
Although this might not have been their intention, they have provided a cautionary tale of an intellectual in politics, a tale of self-undoing by vanity and by neglect of an intellectual’s obligation not to sacrifice his intellectual calling to daily politics. They have also called to the attention of the new generation an account of a person who with all his foibles and foolishness was much loved by many individuals and not without good reason.
So what is left of Harold Laski, who was once the linchpin that held together Anglo-American collectivistic liberalism, who was a striking example of an intellectual in politics and an intimate of the great? Apart from the legendary exaggerations or plain fabrications in his half of the Holmes–Laski Letters (1953), all that is left are the several interesting works of his earliest years and the recollection of his kindly interest in and his generosity to his students. His publisher Charles Furth of Allen & Unwin—not a radical publisher as the biographers say— once uttered the following words to me: “Harold Laski—the biggest heart in London.” To have revived the image of such a man is a worthy achievement and readers should be grateful to the biographers for their accomplishment.
- Harold Laski: A Life on the Left, by Isaac Kramnick and Barry Sheerman; Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 669 pages, $35. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 8, on page 24
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