Harold Laski

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Harold Laski
Born(1893-06-30)30 June 1893
Died24 March 1950(1950-03-24) (aged 56)
FieldsPolitical science, political philosophy, political economy, jurisprudence
InstitutionsLondon School of Economics
Alma materNew College, Oxford
Notable studentsV. K. Krishna Menon, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr.,
K. R. Narayanan, Pierre Trudeau
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Harold Laski
Born(1893-06-30)30 June 1893
Died24 March 1950(1950-03-24) (aged 56)
FieldsPolitical science, political philosophy, political economy, jurisprudence
InstitutionsLondon School of Economics
Alma materNew College, Oxford
Notable studentsV. K. Krishna Menon, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr.,
K. R. Narayanan, Pierre Trudeau

Harold Joseph Laski (30 June 1893 – 24 March 1950) was a British Marxist, political theorist, economist, author, and lecturer, who served as the chairman of the Labour Party during 1945–1946, and was a professor at the London School of Economics from 1926 to 1950.


Early life

Harold Laski was born in Manchester on 30 June 1893 to Nathan Laski and Sarah Laski (née Frankenstein). Nathan Laski was a Jewish cotton merchant and a member of the Liberal Party. 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.[1] 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 antagonized 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.[2][3]

Academic career

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 University during 1919–20. For his outspoken support of the Boston Police Strike of 1919 Laski received severe criticism. After his brief involvement with the founding of The New School for Social Research in 1919,[4] Laski returned to England in 1920 and began his association with the London School of Economics (LSE). Six years later, he was made professor of political science at the LSE, a post he held till his death in 1950.

He also lectured regularly in America and wrote for The New Republic. During his years in Harvard, he became friends with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Herbert Croly and Morris Raphael Cohen. Apart from his academic work 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.[2][5][6]

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.[7] 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 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.[8]

As a lecturer, Laski was popular amongst his students.[5] Describing Laski's popularity, Kingsley Martin wrote in 1968:

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.[9]

Ralph Miliband, another student of Laski, praised his teaching as follows:

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.[10]

Ideology and political convictions

Laski was 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.[11] 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.[5] Initially he believed that the League of Nations would bring about a "international democratic system". However from the late 1920s his political beliefs became radicalized 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 and wrote a preface to the Left Book Club collection criticising it, Betrayal of the Left.[12] In his last years he was disillusioned by the Cold War and the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia.[2][3][5][6] George Orwell described him as "A socialist by allegiance, and a liberal by temperament".[5]

Political career

Laski was involved in Labour party politics from the early 1920s. In 1923, he turned down the offer of a parliament seat and cabinet position by Ramsay MacDonald. In 1931 he left the Labour party after becoming disillusioned with party politics. In 1932, Laski joined the Socialist League. In 1937, he was involved in the failed attempt by 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, he rejoined the Labour party and became a member of its National Executive Committee, of which he remained a member until 1949. Laski suffered a nervous breakdown during the World War II years, brought about by overwork. In 1944, he chaired the Labour party conference and served as the party's chair during 1945–46.[2]

During the 1945 general elections Laski was involved in a libel trial which was used by the Conservative party to criticise Clement Attlee. While speaking against the Conservative candidate in Newark, 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 posed by a member of the audience, Wentworth Day. The next day accounts of Laski's speech appeared in the Newark Advertiser and other newspapers. The Conservatives seized this issue and criticised the Labour party for advocating violence. Laski's position as the member of Labour executive committee and a popular member of the LSE faculty meant the issue could do serious damage to Labour party's electoral chances. To mitigate the damage, Laski filed a libel suit against the Conservative Daily Express newspaper. Appearing for the defense, Patrick Hastings was able to convince the jury to throw out the case. The jury found for the defendant within forty minutes of deliberations and pronounced the Newark Advertiser's account to be a fair and accurate representation of Laski's speech. Laski met the cost of the case (about £13,000) through public donations.[2][13]

Though Laski played a prominent role in Labour party winning the 1945 elections, he did not have any practical influence in the Labour government's decision-making process. Even before the Newark libel case 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.[2][6] When Laski began laying down guidelines for the new Labour government's foreign policy, Attlee rebuked him:

You have no right whatever to speak on behalf of the Government. Foreign affairs are in the capable hands of Ernest Bevin. His task is quite sufficiently difficult without the irresponsible statements of the kind you are making ... I can assure you there is widespread resentment in the Party at your activities and a period of silence on your part would be welcome.[6]

This rebuke together with the Newark libel case damaged Laski's reputation irreparably. Though he continued to work for the Labour party till the 1950 elections, he never regained his earlier influence.[2][5][6]


Laski contracted influenza and died on 24 March 1950.[2]


Laski had an impact on the politics and the formation of India, having taught a generation of future Indian 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".[5] 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 said "in every meeting of the Indian Cabinet there is a chair reserved for the ghost of Professor Harold Laski".[14][15] 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.[16] In his memory, the Indian government established The Harold Laski Institute of Political Science in 1954 at Ahmedabad.[2]

Speaking at a meeting organized in Laski's memory by the Indian League at London on 3 May 1950, Nehru praised him as follows:

It is difficult to realise that Professor Harold Laski is no more. Lovers of freedom all over the world pay tribute to the magnificent work that he did. We in India are particularly grateful for his staunch advocacy of India's freedom, and the great part he played in bringing it about. At no time did he falter or compromise on the principles he held dear, and a large number of persons drew splendid inspiration from him. Those who knew him personally counted that association as a rare privilege, and his passing away has come as a great sorrow and a shock.[17]

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.[18]


Laski has been criticised by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. as "incorrigible teller of tales that exaggerated – sometimes fabricated – his own accomplishments, charms, and triumphs". According to Schlesinger:

[Laski] gave the highest value to individual freedom but never explained how it could survive without diversification of ownership. His fatal fluency enabled him to glide over the hard questions. His besetting sin was the substitution of rhetoric for thought.[5]

Ayn Rand, in a collection of her essays, The Art of Fiction, remarks that after hearing a talk by Laski in the 1930s, he became for her the personification of the villain Ellsworth Toohey in her novel, The Fountainhead.[19] In her words,

"It is true that he was not particularly liberal—that is, he was the most vicious liberal I have ever heard in public, but not blatantly so. He was very subtle and gracious, he rambled on a great deal about nothing in particular—and then he made crucial, vicious points once in a while [...] I thought, "There was my character." [...] Years later, I learned that [his] career was in fact somewhat like Toohey's: he was always the man behind the scenes, much more influential than anybody knew publicly, pulling the strings behind the governments of several countries. Finally he was proved to be a communist, which he did not announce himself as or blatantly sound like."[citation needed]

In his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell used a section from Laski's book, Essay in Freedom of Expression, as an example of writing which demonstrated the "mental vices" suffered by English speakers.[20][21]

Partial bibliography

See also


  1. ^ Obituary: Anthony Blond, telegrapg.co.uk, 1 March 2008
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Papers of Harold Laski and Frida Laski (1893–1950)". University of Hull. http://slb-archives.hull.ac.uk/DServe/dserve.exe?dsqIni=Dserve.ini&dsqApp=Archive&dsqDb=Catalog&dsqCmd=show.tcl&dsqSearch=(RefNo==%22DLA%22). Retrieved 2010-01-16.
  3. ^ a b Lamb, Peter (April , 1999). "Harold Laski (1893–1950): Political Theorist of a World in Crisis". Review of International Studies (Cambridge University Press) 25 (2): 329–342. JSTOR 20097600.
  4. ^ http://www.newschool.edu/nssr/subpage.aspx?id=9060
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Schlesinger, Jr, Arthur. "Harold Laski: A Life on the Left". The Washington Monthly. http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Harold+Laski:+A+Life+on+the+Left.-a014687963. Retrieved 2010-01-16.
  6. ^ a b c d e Mortimer, Molly (September 1993). "Harold Laski: A Political Biography. – book reviews". Contemporary Review. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2242/is_n1532_v263/ai_14567902/. Retrieved 2010-01-16.
  7. ^ Martin Jay The Dialectical Imagination, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972, p.30, 115
  8. ^ Franz Neumann Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933–1944, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2009, p. ix–x
  9. ^ Kingsley Martin (1968). Editor: a second volume of autobiography, 1931–45. Hutchinson. p. 94. http://books.google.com/books?id=RvIqAAAAMAAJ. Retrieved 22 April 2012.
  10. ^ Michael Newman (2002). Ralph Miliband and the politics of the New Left. Merlin Press. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-85036-513-9. http://books.google.com/books?id=ZuoEAQAAIAAJ. Retrieved 22 April 2012.
  11. ^ Laski,Harold. The State in Theory and Practice." Transation Publishers, 2009. p. 242
  12. ^ Angus Calder, The People's War: Britain, 1939–1945. Panther Books, 1969 (p. 733).
  13. ^ Rubinstein, Michael (1972). Wicked, wicked libels. Taylor & Francis. pp. 167–168. ISBN 0-7100-7239-2, ISBN 978-0-7100-7239-9. http://books.google.com/books?id=SY09AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA168.
  14. ^ Isaac Kramnick and Barry Sheerman Harold Laski: A Life on the Left, The Penguin Press, 1993
  15. ^ Guha, Ramachandra (23 November 2003). "The LSE and India". The Hindu. http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/mag/2003/11/23/stories/2003112300120300.htm. Retrieved 2010-01-16.
  16. ^ Gandhi, Gopalakrishna (2 December 2005). "A remarkable life-story". Frontline. http://www.flonnet.com/fl2224/stories/20051202005812900.htm. Retrieved 2010-01-16.
  17. ^ "Tributes to Harold Laski". The Hindu. 4 May 1950. http://www.hinduonnet.com/2000/05/04/stories/10041045.htm. Retrieved 2010-01-16.
  18. ^ Fung, Edmund S. K. (2000). In search of Chinese democracy: civil opposition in Nationalist China, 1929–1949. Cambridge University Press. pp. 309. ISBN 978-0-521-77124-5. http://books.google.co.in/books?id=jw-U3UGoRWgC&pg=PA309&lpg=PA309&dq=chu+anping+laski#v=onepage&q=chu%20anping%20laski&f=false.
  19. ^ Olson, Walter (February 1998). "The Writerly Rand". Reason Magazine. http://reason.com/archives/1998/02/01/the-writerly-rand. Retrieved 2010-01-16.
  20. ^ Orwell, George. "George Orwell: Politics and the English Language". http://punctilious.org/grammar/composition/orwell.htm. Retrieved 2010-01-16.
  21. ^ Meyers, Jeffrey (1997). George Orwell. Routledge. pp. 104. ISBN 0-415-15923-7, ISBN 978-0-415-15923-4. http://books.google.com/books?id=_Z0RdAUeZs0C&pg=PA104.

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Political offices
Preceded by
Ellen Wilkinson
Chair of the Labour Party
Succeeded by
Philip Noel-Baker