Before proceeding with this review,footnote＊ I should, as they say, declare an interest. I came to know Harold Laski as a student at the London School of Economics (then evacuated in Cambridge) between 1941 and 1943; and I was fairly close to him after I came back to the lse in 1946. I was quite dazzled, as a seventeen-year-old student, by his scholarship, his wit, his extraordinary generosity to students, and his familiarity with the great and the mighty. I had a deep affection for him, which the passage of the years since his death in 1950 at the age of fifty-six has not dimmed. Like countless other students of his, I owe him a very large debt for his help and support in academic and other matters.
These two books are quite dissimilar in a number of ways but have one outstanding characteristic in common—the immense amount of research which has gone into them. Newman concentrates upon Laski’s ideas and politics, but does not neglect any important aspect of his life. His book is searching, sober, well-argued. He is often critical of Laski, but defends him against his detractors and sees him, quite rightly, as a man of great intellectual integrity. For their part, Kramnick and Sheerman provide a wealth of fascinating detail about Laski, which obviously demanded a lot of digging, particularly in the United States, where Laski spent nearly a third of his teaching career.footnote1 Unfortunately, the book is marred by comments on Laski’s character and motives which are quite unjustified. Here are a few examples: ‘almost as important to him as attacking the privileged was dining with them’ (p. 3); ‘that characteristic combination of brazen ambition and brash self-promotion which would become his trade mark’ (p. 34); ‘Laski left nothing to chance when it came to fulfilling his fame’ (p. 107); ‘it is tempting to read Laski’s cooling towards
All this and much else in the same vein makes Laski sound like an unprincipled opportunist kowtowing to the powerful, with his eye firmly fixed on the main chance and intent above all else on ‘making it’—the title of the section of the book dealing with Laski in the twenties. Yet in other parts of the text, Kramnick pays tribute to Laski’s devotion to his students, his warmth and generosity, and his selfless dedication to the labour movement; and he himself supplies much of the evidence which shows how misleading are his strictures. For what is truly remarkable about Laski was the courage, often bordering on recklessness, which he displayed in expressing views which he knew to be unacceptable to people whose friendship he valued, and in openly criticizing men of power whom he might have been expected, given Kramnick’s image of him, to flatter rather than excoriate.
In 1919, Laski was a young instructor at Harvard. This was the year of the Boston police strike, during which students were urged to volunteer for police duties. It was in an atmosphere of mounting hysteria against the Bolshevik menace that Laski, a foreigner and a Jew, decided to address a meeting of the policemen’s wives, where he strongly attacked the Commissioner of Police, and gave a ringing defence of the striking policemen. This produced a virulent response, with attacks in the press, demands for his dismissal, and the publication of a whole issue of the student paper, the Harvard Lampoon, devoted solely to bitterly antisemitic attacks on him. Two other examples of this tendency to speak out are worth noting. Laski derived much pleasure from his friendship with President and Mrs Roosevelt. He admired Roosevelt’s innovative spirit in the early days of the New Deal and dedicated The American Presidency (1940) to him. But he never concealed his view of the limitations of the President’s policies; and in 1943, he wrote a bitterly critical ‘Open Letter to President Roosevelt’ in the New Statesman and Nation. The letter, in Kramnick’s words, ‘criticized Roosevelt’s patronage of right-wing or monarchical regimes in Spain, France and Italy, suggesting that the President accepted a post-war world “run by the old men for the old purposes” ’ (p. 451). Roosevelt was annoyed and wrote a critical note to Mr Justice Frankfurter, Laski’s close friend, on the day the article appeared, saying that ‘he knows not whereof he speaks’ (ibid.).
The other example concerns Clement Attlee, then Leader of the Labour Party and, in effect, deputy prime minister in the Churchill Coalition Government. In 1944, Laski was Chairman of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, to which body he had been regularly elected by the constituency parties ever since 1937, often at the top of the poll. It was in his capacity as Chairman that he took it upon himself to write a remarkable letter to Attlee in which he spoke of ‘the strong feeling that the continuance of your leadership in the party is a grave handicap to our hopes of victory in the coming election . . . your resignation of the leadership would be a great service to the party’ (p. 481). Whatever may be thought of this document, it hardly conjures up the image of a man concerned to propitiate important people.
Laski’s whole career is in fact punctuated by episodes in which his willingness to speak his mind infuriated not only people in the anti-socialist and non-socialist camp, but also people in the leadership of the Labour Party. Hugh Dalton, who was to be Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Labour Government of 1945, was one such, who referred to Laski as a ‘diminutive Semite’ and who spoke of his ‘Yideology’.
Laski started out as an advocate of pluralism, by which he then meant that the state was only one association among many, and was owed no greater allegiance than any other. This was the burden of such early works as The Foundations of Sovereignty (1919) and A Grammar of Politics (1925). The trouble with this view of the state, as he came to see in the late twenties, is that the state is not just one association among many, simply because it is invested with a degree of power which other associations do not have. The power of the state may be constrained, contested and subverted, and it may be no more than the instrument of powerful forces in society. But it is nevertheless the institution actually vested with, in Max Weber’s formulation, the power of legitimate violence. The strength of pluralism did not lie in its characterization of the state, but in its insistence that the state was not entitled to any special allegiance simply because it was the state. It might well be able to enforce obedience, but this was something else altogether. Laski never departed from this view of pluralism, and from the insistence that a democratic society must value, foster and strengthen the associations which give life to society and effective meaning to citizenship. On the other hand, he not only came to think that the state was much more than one association among many, but that the construction of the new social order to which he was committed would require a strong, effective state. This did not turn him into a ‘statist’, but amounted to a recognition that the state was, for socialist purposes, an essential, indispensable resource. Laski hated dictatorship, of whatever kind; and this, combined with his awareness of the need for a vibrant and democratic society, introduced an inevitable element of tension in his thinking. Such tension, between state power and civic power, is part of any serious appreciation of the nature and problems of the socialist enterprise.