Commentary Magazine

Harold Laski, by Kingsley Martin

Labour’s Bright Comet
Harold Laski.
By Kingsley Martin.
Viking. 278 pp. $4.00.


During the election campaign of 1945 there was a moment when both sides seriously imagined that the Conservatives might come back to power by exploiting the “Laski bogey,” i.e., the alleged power of Harold Laski, as chairman of the Labor party executive in that year, to dominate the policies of a Socialist government. In the end, the electorate decided otherwise. The Labor landslide probably could not have been stopped by anything short of an epidemic among the voters; its course certainly was not to be altered by scare headlines in the Daily Express, or even by Mr. Churchill’s fulminations on the radio. But the incident—which had been provoked by one of Laski’s characteristically tactless statements to the press—left a residue of bitterness. Among others it led to a libel action which gave Sir Patrick Hastings an opportunity to persuade a Special Jury that Laski had publicly advocated revolution and the breaking up of laws; and it permanently soured Laski’s relations with his colleagues on the Labor executive. If, in the years that followed, he was out of sympathy not only with Bevin, but with Attlee, and even with Cripps, that was partly because they had all come to regard him as a liability: a devoted colleague, but decidedly one who talked too much; even—though it took a candid reviewer of Mr. Martin’s biography to say so in print—one who “talked after he had stopped thinking.”

How far away it all seems now, though only three years have passed since Laski’s death, and less than eight since Labor “came to power,” as the phrase goes. Did it really come to power? Perhaps the fact that “power” had irrevocably shifted to the other side of the Atlantic had something to do with the timidity it displayed in office; or it may be that Laski was right (though hardly tactful) when in 1945 he told Attlee to his face that he ought to let someone else lead the party. (But who else was there?) However that may be, there is something like a period look about this biography of the New Statesman’s favorite oracle (appropriately published in England by Victor Gollancz). Even in 1945, Laski had begun to “date,” as had his biographer. Both had their great moment ten years earlier, at the time of the Left Book Club, the Spanish Civil War, and the Popular Front. When the Stalino-Liberal honeymoon was blighted by the Moscow Trials, they found a substitute in attacking Chamberlain and preparing the public for the showdown with Hitler; all very estimable, no doubt, and worth doing. One could wish, though, that not quite so much pernicious nonsense had been talked by the Laski-Martin-Gollancz trio about the need to “understand” the Soviet Union (meaning to find excuses for whatever fresh horror or betrayal Stalin was about to inflict on his worshipers).



It is all very dead now, and the deadest of all issues is that of Laski’s standing as a Socialist theorist. On this, Mr. Martin is unrepentant, though he concedes that Laski never lived up to the promise held out by his adolescent brilliance (he was a lecturer at twenty-one). He mildly censures him for little personal weaknesses, such as his conceit and a curious habit of “romancing” about imaginary experiences and accomplishments including a personal interview with Stalin, following the official one, in 1945; he admits that Laski spent too much time with his students and not enough with his books; he laments that the magnum opus somehow never got written; but through it all there runs a suggestion that if only Laski had held aloof from politics and concentrated on research he could have produced—what? Apparently, another history of political theory. But in that case, why persist in insinuating that this historian of other men’s thoughts was also a theorist in his own right? The unwritten great work might have been less unreadable than some of Laski’s later utterances, but would it have been more than another fluent essay? There seems no reason to think so. Yet Mr. Martin, with no apparent sense of the incongruous, gravely observes that when Laski toured Italy in 1946 he was treated by many Socialists as in some sense the legitimate successor of Marx. One hazards the guess that these enthusiasts were undergraduates who had found Laski’s writings more easily digestible than Capital. He was always at his best when expounding other men’s thoughts to the young, and his true monument is to be found in the influence he had upon his students at the London School of Economics and elsewhere. And there it might have been left. Mr. Martin has written a sympathetic, readable, and candid “biographical memoir” about a personal friend. It is not his fault if the portrayal leaves the reader more than ever conscious that in Harold Laski the British Labor party lost its most zealous, hardworking, and gifted propagandist—neither more nor less.

The truth of the matter is that at no time of his life did Laski show any theoretical gifts other than the expository ones of the teacher. One can go through all his writings—and he was immensely prolific—without coming upon a solitary original conception. It is a remarkable fact that a lifetime of writing and teaching left behind not a single doctrine associated with his name. Who today reads the Grammar of Politics? Has anyone ever read it through? Its style—if one can call it style—alone makes such an undertaking terribly wearisome. Laski’s writings lack form, and one is tempted to add that this is because they lack content. Immensely learned and extremely intelligent, he yet was never able to pierce through to the fundamentals of any subject. And for the same reason he never clarified his thoughts on the great political subjects of the day, to which as an active Socialist he gave unremitting attention. Was he a Liberal, a Fabian, or a Marxist? No one knows. He himself did not know. He began as a doctrinaire Liberal of the most straitlaced kind; he went on to become an advocate of corporate institutions, a student of Gierke, and a near-Syndicalist; he dropped Syndicalism in favor of Fabianism, then when MacDonald let the Labor party down in 1931, he reacted by “moving left” until he was—almost—a parlor Communist. From this extreme he promptly reacted by “combining” a watered Leninism with a somewhat shaken faith in the British Constitution. Throughout these stormy changes, he corresponded with Baldwin, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Attlee, and would have corresponded with Stalin if Stalin had let him (he did lecture him for two hours in 1945—on the importance of the intellectuals). In 1933, at the height of his parlor-Bolshevism, he simultaneously “discovered” the New Deal, and of course placed exaggerated hopes on it. During the war, he tried to persuade Churchill to introduce socialism in Britain by decree, and was disappointed when Churchill politely refused. Yet he had also appropriated (and vulgarized) the doctrine that politics always has a class basis. It is no wonder that even his best friends came to think him a bit tiresome.



Laski’s faults were all faults of the intellect; his virtues were all virtues of character. The real disclosure of this biography is that he was a likeable human being. He had courage, zest, and independence. He ran away from home when he was eighteen and shocked his Orthodox Jewish family by marrying a young Scotswoman eight years older than himself, who had already shocked her parents by becoming a lecturer in eugenics, a feminist, and a Socialist. When they were both in America during the First World War, he scandalized his academic colleagues by befriending stray acquaintances and by spouting socialism in class; he plunged into the Boston police strike in 1919, and nearly got himself expelled from Harvard. With his usual mixture of tactlessness and moral courage, he insisted on flouting the unwritten convention which laid it down that foreigners—especially if they were also Jews and Socialists—should stay out of American affairs. He was crudely caricatured in the Harvard Lampoon as a “Great Indoor Agitator . . . born in Poland . . . at the age of three . . . went through Oxford in twenty minutes . . . favorite occupation bombing,” etc. The attack was liberally dosed with anti-Semitism, and most of it was not even funny. Laski showed his usual good nature by asking the university authorities not to censure the authors. But would anyone else have been lampooned with such casual disdain? Would a genuinely dangerous “radical” have become the butt of many vulgar jokes throughout his life? There was something about the “Great Indoor Agitator” which irresistibly provoked the kind of treatment Chaplin (whom he resembled in many ways) suffers in his earlier films.

Yet one parts from this memoir with a sense of liking its hero. Laski was funny. He talked far too much and on far too many subjects; and his habit of “romancing” won him enemies even while he was a student. He was vain about his prominent acquaintances, and never failed to bring them into his conversation. But withal he somehow compels liking and a kind of esteem. He was endlessly helpful and he worked immensely hard; in fact, he worked himself to death. What was it that prevented him from ever writing a major work, uttering a major thought, influencing a major decision? Mr. Martin suggests that he devoted too much time to good causes, and that he failed to become Labor’s éminence grise because he could not bear to stay behind the scenes. But one suspects that his fate was sealed for him when at a very early age, still a schoolboy, he showed precocious brilliance and then immediately tried to convert it into the small change of personal success and human esteem. He always had a pathetic craving to be liked, and it may be that it was this which prevented him from doing serious work. The man who breaks new ground may incidentally be a success, but his mental equipment must include readiness to endure the probable fate of the pioneer: poverty, loneliness, and hatred.



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