Harold Laski Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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).