Harold Laski Criticism

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Charles A. Beard (essay date 1921)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 in fact he takes them a bit too seriously. He seems to have read everything, for his allusions fairly make one's head swim; he can make Thomas Aquinas and Graham Wallas bring grist to his mill with a facility that is positively astounding. Indeed, it takes a person with a great deal more penetration than the present reviewer to see some of the relations in political metaphysic which Mr. Laski announces as discovered and explored.

Still, anyone who quarrels with Mr. Laski must quarrel with the whole army of philosophers from Locke to Spencer. Take for example the essay on the foundations of sovereignty. It is a study of what men have thought about the state. The data are the writings of Dante, Ockham, Marsiglio, Bodin, Rousseau, and all the loquacious schoolmen who have been engaged in defending something that they seldom if ever mentioned. Mr. Laski is not deceived by their persistent abuse of "the language habit." He knows what it is about, for he says on page 29: "What the orthodox theory of sovereignty has done is to coerce them [the members of the state] into an unity, and thereby to place itself at the disposal of the social group which, at any given historic moment, happens to dominate the life of the state." Again he remarks that "the control of political power in the modern state by a small group of property-owners must mean at the bottom that the motives to effort upon which reliance is based will be ineffective so soon as the majority of men see through the fa├žade by which they are screened." And still again he says: "The political philosopher is concerned with the discovery of motives, the measure of wills, the balance of interests. .. . He will in fact be driven to the perception that, politically, there is no such thing as sovereignty at all." Such reflections scattered through the book show clearly that Mr. Laski has been behind the scenes.

Then why should he deal so extensively and kindly with the political philosophers who either have not known what it was all about or for very good reasons have not seen fit to mention it? Mr. Laski is fully aware of the fact that Aristotle did not spend much time with the philosophers except to refute them, that he utterly ignored the metaphysic of Athenian law, and that he went straight to the...

(The entire section is 94,381 words.)