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Harold Laski: A Political Biography.

Michael Newman. Macmilian. 1993.

45 [pounds]. 0 333 437 16 0.

Addison Road, for a host of LSE students, meant Professor Laski's Sunday tea parties. In the '30's, in that dark little sitting room, they literally sat at his feet; while Frida frantically cut ever larger plates of smaller sandwiches for those students who sought warmth and weak tea as well as the coruscating brilliance from the small frail figure with a large head, in the armchair.

Laski enjoyed these informal exchanges and was rightly adored by his students for whom he took endless time and trouble. They were also his gallery for whom he played his lectures. Precisely on the hour, he would appear; set his watch on the desk and proceed without notes, to deliver a perfectly timed and witty exposition. This delighted the many students present without fiat for the best entertainment of the week. Laski never claimed to be impartial and the last minutes of his lectures were usually devoted to presenting, and demolishing, views other than his own.

If only he had been content with the world of academe, he could an immortal Socratic niche of immense influence but he of politics. When the second Labour Government fell and some of its members sought employment at LSE (a large notice at the main entrance wickedly proclaimed: |Out Relief Department for the Labour Party') Laski thought his political time had come. But they departed for Downing Street and left him behind after the War. So what went wrong?

Born to a comfortably off Jewish family in Manchester, Harold Laski's frail constitution did not hinder obvious brilliance. But, convalescing after one of his many illnesses, he met Frida, a gentile physiotherapist, nine years older. It looked like a recipe for disaster when he eloped at 18. But he was lucky. Unlike that other Frida who took on DHL, his Frida supplied a vital stabilising factor and the common sense he lacked. His academic career took off, and after a First at Oxford he and Frida departed for Canada and then Harvard. He was an ambivalent pacifist who volunteered to fight in World War 1. Rejected for a weak heart, he nevertheless felt guilty when his brother was wounded.

In 1920 Laski was offered a job at LSE which led to rapid promotion. By 1926, he was a very young (32) Professor of Politics and completed his major book, Grammar of Politics, which sank with a gentle thud into near oblivion after his death. But these early years at LSE were probably the happiest of his life. By the thirties the political scene had darkened and the outside world peered menacingly at Laski's pleasant, rational world of peaceful change; the Fabian European picture soon to be shattered by the Spanish Savage war. Laski had little real contact with the proletariat or the incipient Third World. India and Africa were still remote; Palestine too painfully close for his unresolved Jewishness.

Laski believed passionately that intellectuals had a place in practical politics, and though he never tried his hand as an M.P. he built up a strong power base in the National Executive Committee on which he served for 12 years, chairing it in the fateful 1945 election year. He was too clever to be trusted and a kind of Red Dean of politics picture grew round him as if he put an academic gloss on propaganda. Unfortunately, as he moved Leftwards, he increasingly clashed with the Labour leadership under Attlee. Like another brilliant man, Enoch Powell, he seemed to have no |nous' for compromise.

The ambivalent relationship between the NEC and the Labour Party gave him a free hand to intervene. It seems impossible to believe that he really thought Attlee would appoint him as Ambassador to the USA in 1945, when he had so consistently undermined Attlee, calling him in the American press |uninteresting and uninspired'. He tried to remove Attlee by asking for his resignation in an open letter; he tried to delay Potsdam until after Attlee's position was clarified; he tried to bypass his leader in direct contact with Churchill (who naturally disliked Laski but found him useful political ammunition). But when he began laying down guidelines for the Labour Government foreign policy, Attlee finally exploded in his famous rebuke, which damaged Laski's reputation beyond repair and put the NEC into a firmly subordinate position: |You have no right whatever to speak on behalf of the Government. Foreign affairs are in the capable hands of Ernest Bevin. His task is quite sufficiently difficult without the irresponsible statements of the kind you are making . . . I can assure you there is widespread resentment in the Party at your activities and a period of silence on your part would be welcome'.

This was followed by the final crushing blow of losing the Newark libel case, where he was accused of supporting revolution and political violence. He never recovered from this and, although he worked as hard as ever for the 1950 elections, he lost heart to fight the bronchial pneumonia which engulfed him. Sadly, his reputation continued to slide and LSE did little to stop it.

Michael Newman, as Professor of Politics at North London, has written a deliberately political biography and sorted the many strands of Laski's life with skill. But somehow the man behind the machinations and the beloved teacher do not emerge. Perhaps the other half of this biography will be written before undeserved oblivion creeps in.

Though pipped at the post for publication, this second Harold Laski, a huge tome, is well worth dipping into. It is so like Laski's own Grammar of Politics it might well be called the Grammar of Laski, for all possible details of his early life are lovingly inscribed, including six years in the USA. With two authors, one an American Professor of Government, the Anglo-American aspects of Laski as a bridge builder are given prominence. Emphasis is also laid on the degree of anti-semitism in England at that time, which could not be ignored. There were very few Jews in the English Socialist movement which, unlike the Continental one, derived more from the Christian Chapel than from Communist intellectuals. Laski's own study of Karl Marx, while appreciating his economic insights, stopped short of revolution by dictatorship. He preferred the Fabian revolution by consensus and devolution.

At the age of 27, in 1920, Laski sailed for England and LSE where he taught for thirty years through the end of the age of political innocence. Wrapped in the cosy myths of Fabianism, he saw the outside world stare nastily in. The election of a professional trouble-maker as President of the Students Union in 1935, and his subsequent deportation, ended Arcady for the student world. And the post war world alas was not for Laski. The mass preacher and brilliant teacher died sadly feeling a failure, deserted by the Labour Party he slaved for. Yet he changed the face of British Socialism and this book published on the hundredth anniversary of his birth in 1893 may do something towards a justified rehabilitation of a loved and elusive man.
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Author:Mortimer, Molly
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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