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Harold Laski

Harold Laski Essay - Critical Essays

Laski, Harold

Introduction

Laski, Harold 1893-1950

(Full name Harold Joseph Laski) English political theorist, nonfiction writer, and essayist.

An influential figure in left-wing politics during the period from the end of World War II to the early part of the Cold War, Laski published more than two dozen books and attracted an enormous following among students in his native Britain, the United States, and later in Asia and Africa. As a lecturer he attained almost cult-like status with youthful devotees drawn to his political ideas, which seemed to offer the Anglo-American democracies a type of Marxism more humane than the Soviet system. Laski was not without his detractors, of course, and during his lifetime became involved in a number of controversies. The latter stemmed in part from his ideas, which he developed from those of Karl Marx and other original thinkers, as well as from his actions as an outspoken pundit and a member of the British Labor Party. Laski became a well-known intellectual in the 1930s and 1940s, but his stature diminished greatly in the years following his death in 1950.

Biographical Information

The son of Jewish parents who had become wealthy in the cotton industry of Manchester, England, Laski defied tradition when he was eighteen by marrying a non-Jewish woman, Frida Kerry. At Oxford he studied eugenics, then switched to a major in history. When World War I broke out, the British Army rejected him on the basis of his health, so he took a teaching position at McGill University in Montreal. In 1916 he moved to Harvard University, where he taught until controversy over his statements in support of striking Boston policeman forced him to leave his position in 1920. Laski returned to England to become a lecturer at the London School of Economics, and would remain in that position until his death thirty years later. Nonetheless, he maintained strong ties to the United States through friendships with such influential Americans as President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Supreme Court justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Felix Frankfurter. Books such as A Grammar of Politics (1925) gave him a large following among university students on both sides of the Atlantic, and ultimately his influence would spread far beyond the Anglo-American world to India, China, and Africa. Laski also became involved in various political activities, serving on the executive committee of the Fabian Society from 1921 to 1936, and on that of the Labour Party from 1936 to 1949. In the course of his career, Laski's politics shifted from a radically libertarian stance to an interest in totalitarianism evidenced by occasional expressions of admiration for the Soviet system under Joseph Stalin, a tendency that developed in 1931 with the onset of the Great Depression and the failure of the Labour government under Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. On the whole, however, Laski favored a democratic socialism tailored to the economic realities and social tolerance of Britain and the United States. His politics made him a well-known figure in Britain and America. After his death in 1950, however, the influence of his work decreased rapidly.

Major Works

Laski is not generally considered an original thinker, but rather a synthesizer of ideas from Marx and others. Likewise, few of his published works, with the exception of A Grammar of Politics, are regarded as notable. Written during the period of his career when he was solidly committed to the rights of the individual against those of the state, a position he would reverse in the early 1930s, A Grammar of Politics is a study of the concept of liberty. In it Laski applies the notion of pluralism—that is, the idea that the state is or should be just one of several institutions, including the home, the church, civic organizations, and other groups, all competing for the allegiance of the individual. Other early works, including Studies in the Problem of Sovereignty (1917), Authority in the Modern State (1919), and The Foundations of Sovereignty, and Other Essays (1922) developed similar themes relating to the position of the individual within a larger polity. In Communism (1927), Laski offered a critique of Marxism and its application in Soviet Russia, while Democracy in Crisis (1933) and Parliamentary Government in England (1938) reflected his growing conviction that traditional democratic institutions had increasingly become unworkable. Nonetheless, he protested the Soviets' 1939 non-aggression pact with Germany, whereby Communists made common cause with Nazis, in the 1940 pamphlet Is This an Imperialist War? As the war progressed, he began to offer prognoses in Where Do We Go From Here? (1940) and Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time (1943) for the democratic socialist order that he thought should ensue with the end of hostilities. Throughout his career, Laski maintained an interest in the politics of the U.S., reflected in The American Presidency (1940) and The American Democracy (1949).

Principal Works

Studies in the Problem of Sovereignty (nonfiction) 1917

Authority in the Modern State (nonfiction) 1919

The Foundations of Sovereignty, and Other Essays (essays) 1922

A Grammar of Politics (nonfiction) 1925

Communism (nonfiction) 1927

Liberty in the Modern State (nonfiction) 1930

Democracy in Crisis (nonfiction) 1933

The State in Theory and Practice (nonfiction) 1935

The Rise of European Liberalism (nonfiction) 1936

Parliamentary Government in England (nonfiction) 1938

The Danger of Being a Gentleman, and Other Essays (essays) 1939

The American Presidency (nonfiction) 1940

Is This An Imperialist War? (essay) 1940

Where Do We Go From Here? (nonfiction) 1940

Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time (nonfiction) 1943

Faith, Reason, and Civilization (nonfiction) 1944

The American Democracy (nonfiction) 1949

The Dilemma of Our Times (essay) 1952

Criticism

Charles A. Beard (essay date 1921)

SOURCE: "Political Metaphysic," in The Nation, Vol. 113, No. 2938, October 26, 1921, pp. 482-3.

[In the following essay, Beard reviews Laski's The Foundations of Sovereignty and Other Essays.]

Mr. Laski has brought together eight essays written on divers occasions and has prefaced them by a new study which gives the title to [The Foundations of Sovereignty and Other Essays]. Four of the papers are legal in character. These deal with the responsibility of the state, the personality of associations, the early history of the corporation in England, and the doctrine of vicarious liability. One of the studies is an excursion into administrative law, an analysis of public work and geographical districts. The remainder treat of politics in terms of philosophy. A common thesis unites them all: the unified and sovereign state is morally inadequate and administratively inefficient, and for this political monster we must substitute a pluralistic state which offers coordination for hierarchical structure. A common purpose runs through the most technical pages. It is a desire to help fix the new social philosophy on firmer historical foundations.

It goes without saying that the political philosophers will welcome Mr. Laski's book. Students of law who know and love their Pollock and Maitland will fairly revel in his illuminating inquiry into the early history of the corporation. It is carefully documented. It is full of brilliant suggestions and it is written in a playful style that recalls Maitland himself. One may be pardoned the opinion that Mr. Laski is at his best when he is dealing with the concrete stuff of the law. In political philosophy he is always making trouble for the artists in logomachy, and...

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W. Y. Elliott (essay date 1924)

SOURCE: "The Pragmatic Politics of Mr. H. J. Laski," in The American Political Science Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, May, 1924, pp. 251-75.

[In the following essay, Elliott evaluates theories of the state and government in Laski's early writings.]

In all the varied current of contemporary political theory which seems to have set against the conception of unitary sovereignty as the basis of the structure of the state, the work of Mr. H. J. Laski stands out sufficiently to command general attention. Perhaps this is as much because of the arresting fashion in which Mr. Laski has challenged the traditional doctrines of political theory as it is from the positive content of...

(The entire section is 9941 words.)

J. S. MacKenzie (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: "Harold J. Laski: A Grammar of Politics," in Mind, Vol. 34, 1925, pp. 495-9.

[In the following essay, MacKenzie reviews Laski's A Grammar of Politics.]

Those who are acquainted with previous writings on political subjects by Mr. Laski will expect much from his new book [A Grammar of Politics], and they will not be disappointed. Perhaps the title of it may prove a little misleading. Some may think that a Grammar should be concerned either with the discussion of fundamental principles or with an account of the way in which they are illustrated in the structure of existing societies. Mr. Laski seems to understand Grammar as being essentially an art;...

(The entire section is 1904 words.)

Reinhold Niebuhr (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: "Mr. Laski Proceeds," in The Nation, Vol. 140, March 30, 1935, pp. 338-9.

[In the following essay, Niebuhr reviews Laski's The State in Theory and Practice.]

No contemporary political scientist has analyzed the problems of sovereignty and the state with greater clarity and precision and with a finer sense for the actualities of political history than Harold Laski. In his most recent volume [The State in Theory and Practice] he does justice to his earlier philosophical and historical interest in the character of the state by a rather final and telling refutation of the metaphysical theory of the state as held by Hegel and Bosanquet. Thereupon he proceeds...

(The entire section is 1179 words.)

Lewis Zerby (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: "Normative, Descriptive, and Ideological Elements in the Writings of Laski," in Philosophy of Science, April, 1945, pp. 134-45.

[In the following essay, Zerby distinguishes between Laski's statements about existing political conditions, and his views of the ideal society.]

Laski has been and remains one of the most erudite and influential of the English liberals—indeed, regardless of which of his books the liberal reads, he finishes it with the feeling that Laski is a force for good in political life. However, for the kind of philosopher who is accustomed to make distinctions between morality, ethics, ideology, and descriptive science, there are certain...

(The entire section is 6475 words.)

Benjamin F. Wright (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: A review of The American Democracy, in Ethics, Vol. 59, 1948, pp. 61-3.

[In the following essay, Wright reviews The American Democracy.]

On the jacket of Professor Laski's book [The American Democracy: A Commentary and an Interpretation] the publishers have printed these words: "In 1838 Tocqueville: Democracy in America: In 1888 Bryce: The American Commonwealth: In 1948 Laski:The American Democracy." Now the fact is that Tocqueville's book did not appea r in 1838. The first part appeared in 1835, the second in 1840. This is a trifling inaccuracy which would not be worth mentioning if the new work fitted into the indicated...

(The entire section is 1728 words.)

Carroll Hawkins (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "Harold J. Laski: A Preliminary Analysis," in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. LXV, No. 3, September, 1950, pp. 370-92.

[In the following essay, Hawkins takes a critical look at Laski's Marxism, and the ways this ideology affected his interpretation of the world.]

To all who are concerned with the scope and function of political authority the ideas of Harold Joseph Laski are of signal importance. Over the course of his lifetime Laski' s ideas reflected in many respects the strength and weakness both of those who strive to maintain liberty as the main end of democratic government, and of those who see in equality the fountainhead of democracy which is secured...

(The entire section is 6680 words.)

Roger H. Soltau (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "Professor Laski and Political Science," in The Political Quarterly, Vol. XXI, No. 3, July-September, 1950, pp. 301-10.

[In the following essay, Soltau examines the foundations of Laski's political thinking, and the applications of his philosophy to various realms of political life.)

This is not, and cannot be, a full critical analysis of Laski's work. That will necessitate a detachment still made impossible by affection and sense of loss. All we can hope to do is to offer an inevitably subjective impression of what were the dominant aspects of his contribution to that subject to which he devoted his life.1

The first thing that must...

(The entire section is 4264 words.)

Edmund Wilson (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: "The Holmes-Laski Correspondence," in The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965, pp. 78-100.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1953, Wilson offers an overview of the correspondence between Laski and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.]

The correspondence between Justice Holmes and Harold J. Laski extended over nearly nineteen years—1916-35. It has been published almost in toto in two volumes, comprising sixteen hundred and fifty pages, by the Harvard University Press: Holmes-Laski Letters, under the editorship of Holmes's literary executor, Mr. Mark DeWolfe Howe, with a foreword by...

(The entire section is 7510 words.)

E. H. Carr (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: "Harold Laski," in From Napoleon to Stalin and Other Essays, The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1980, pp. 170-76.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1953, Carr profiles Laski's correspondence with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.]

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Judge of the American Supreme Court and the most distinguished American lawyer of recent times, commonly referred to as "Mr. Justice Holmes", to distinguish him from his father of the same name, the author of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, had reached the age of 75 in the year 1916 when Mr Felix Frankfurter, head of the famous Law School of Harvard, brought to visit him at his summer...

(The entire section is 2853 words.)

Herbert A. Deane (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "The Nature of the State and Political Power," in The Political Ideas of Harold J. Laski, Columbia University Press, 1955, pp. 13-33.

[In the following excerpt, Deane explores Laski's changing views on the state and the legitimacy of its political power.]

Laski's earliest political writings are a constant polemic against what he terms "mystic monism"1 in political thought—the conception that the state is to political theory what the Absolute is to metaphysics, that it is mysteriously One above all other human groupings, and that, because of its superior position and higher purpose, it is entitled to the undivided allegiance of each of its citizens....

(The entire section is 8743 words.)

Hans J. Morgenthau (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "The Corruption of Liberal Thought: Harold Laski," in Dilemmas of Politics, The University of Chicago Press, 1958, pp. 343-49.

[In the following excerpt, Morgenthau takes a critical look at Laski's shift from liberalism to socialism.]

The decline of the political philosophy of liberalism is due to the defects of its general philosophy, which contemporary developments have brought to the fore. What liberalism had to say about the nature of man, society, and politics is at odds with what we have experienced. More specifically, it has been unable to reconcile its original libertarian assumptions and postulates with its latter-day philosophy of the administrative...

(The entire section is 2714 words.)

Martin Peretz (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Laski Redivivus," in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1966, pp. 87-101.

[In the following essay, Peretz evaluates Laski's relevance to America in the 1960s.]

It is now more than fifteen years since Harold J. Laski died, and it is almost as if whatever favourable words have been entered for him since have been in the defensive mood, slightly apologetic and with just the faintest traces of embarrassment. Such, in fact, was the case, one should add, even before his death, especially after his unsuccessful libel action. Moreover, 'there is no element of his work', as he himself rather sardonically wrote of Marx's, 'which has not been declared...

(The entire section is 5964 words.)

Yosef Gorni (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Jewishness and Zionism of Harold Laski," in Midstream, Vol. 23, No. 9, November, 1977, pp. 72-7.

[In the following essay, Gorni discusses Laski's attitude toward his own Jewishness, and toward the cause of Zionism.]

Since the early days of European socialism, the attitude of left-wing Jewish intellectuals to Judaism and Zionism has always been problematical. Many of them were torn between Jewish loyalties and the conscious desire to escape their origins. Harold Laski, one of the outstanding and most influential left-wing intellectuals in the Englishspeaking world in the nineteen thirties and forties, did not escape this personal conflict. But, then, his...

(The entire section is 3650 words.)

W. H. Greenleaf (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Laski and British Socialism," in History of Political Thought, Vol. II, No. 3, Winter, 1981, pp. 573-91.

[In the following essay, Greenleaf examines the development of Laski's socialist ideas.]

I

It is just over a quarter of a century now since Harold Laski died. His writings have since received a certain amount of attention, most of it critical, some of it downright pejorative. I confess that for a long while I shared this deprecatory attitude; but lately I have begun to wonder whether it is justified. The main difficulty which has been raised by commentators centres on the matter of consistency. It is pointed out how Laski, beginning...

(The entire section is 8690 words.)

Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr. (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Harold J. Laski: The American Experience," in American Studies, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 53-67.

[In the following essay, Ekirch assesses Laski 's impact on American politics, in part through his relations with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other prominent Americans. ]

A generation after his death in 1950, Harold Laski, the eminent political scientist, socialist and British Labour Party leader, is now little remembered by students outside his own fields of government and political theory. Yet Laski remains an important figure in both British and American Studies. In an obituary assessment of his fellow political scientist, the distinguished...

(The entire section is 7972 words.)

John Hunt (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Laski, Labour & Moscow," in Encounter, Vol. 62, March, 1984, pp. 28-31.

[In the following essay, Hunt offers a critical look at Laski's pro-Soviet writings, particularly an essay in The Danger of Being a Gentleman.]

Browsing through an old bookshop in South London recently I came upon one of those forgotten political volumes with a tattered red dust-jacket so redolent of the 1930s and 1940s. Befitting his contemporary importance the author's name was printed in massive type completely overshadowing the title: LASKI—The danger of being a gentleman.1

Nostalgia for an era of political innocence welled up as I flicked through...

(The entire section is 2748 words.)

Isaac Kramnick and Barry Sheerman (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Laski's Legacy," in Harold Laski: A Life on the Left, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1993, pp. 580-92.

[In the following excerpt, Kramnick and Sheerman recount events that occurred in the decades following Laski's death and evaluate his overall influence.]

'No one can teach politics who does not know politics at first hand,' Laski wrote in 1939, and he practised what he preached. Few people in the twentieth century have lived two such totally complete lives as scholar and politician as he did. After his death he was remembered and honoured in both worlds. The Labour Party's annual conference in 1950 approved a resolution remembering 'with gratitude and...

(The entire section is 5210 words.)

Michael Newman (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Reputations: Harold Laski Today," in Political Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 3, July-September, 1996, pp. 228-38.

[In the following essay, Newman offers a late twentieth-century analysis of Laski's ideas and works.]

Harold Laski (1893-1950) was perhaps the best-known socialist intellectual of his era. As a prolific writer, inspiring teacher, intimate friend of leading political figures and prominent member of the Labour Party National Executive, his influence was felt in the United States, India and mainland Europe as well as in Britain. However, he was always a controversial figure; having achieved notoriety as the bête noire of the right during the 1945...

(The entire section is 5429 words.)