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Harold Laski: A Life on the Left.

Harold Laski, the leftist British intellectual, knew Churchill, advised FDR, and dazzled Oliver Wendell Holmes. So why has posterity forgotten him?

Does anyone still remember Harold Laski? Sixty years ago he was a famous - in some circles notorious - figure. A professor of political science at the London School of Economics, he was known round the world as the evangelist of democratic socialism. In Britain, he regularly led the polls in the vote for the Labour Party's National Executive. In America, he was on close terms with Franklin Roosevelt and half a dozen Supreme Court justices. Leftists acclaimed him as the prophet of a golden tomorrow. Rightists denounced him as the evil genius behind the Labour Party and the New Deal. Anti-colonial nationalists in Africa and India looked to him for inspiration. His books were in demand, his articles appeared everywhere, his lectures were enthusiastically applauded, his energy seemed boundless, his influence was indisputable. And today? Rarely has so vivid a figure faded so fast. He is as forgotten as Ozymandias: "Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck.../The lone level sands stretch far away."

Laski's impact, while it lasted, was almost as great on America as on Britain. He burst on the United States in 1916, a 23-year-old prodigy out of Oxford who joined the Harvard faculty and proceeded to dazzle everyone he met - and he took care to meet everyone of importance. Those dazzled (some longer than others) included, in the older generation, Justices Holmes and Brandeis, Herbert Croly of The New Republic and the philosopher Morris Cohen; among his contemporaries, Felix Frankfurter, Roger Baldwin, Walter Lippmann, Edmund Wilson, and Charles A. Beard. Anyone who doubts the youthful brilliance of this small, frail, chain-smoking Britisher should look at the two sparkling volumes of the Holmes-Laski Letters.

After a controversial intervention in the Boston police strike of 1919, Laski returned to England where, in addition to his LSE professorship, he lived a frantic life as a political and intellectual gadfly, pouring out books, pamphlets, and newspaper columns in an endless stream. He was active in the Labour Party, the Fabian Society, the Left Book Club and lectured regularly in America, where he picked up a new generation of friends, especially Max Lerner and Edward R. Murrow.

Even his critics concede that Laski played a very large role in bringing about the transformation of British opinion that produced Labour's victory in 1945. But ironically, Labour's arrival in 10 Downing Street doomed Laski to frustration and depression. For all his public visibility, he never had had much practical influence on policy when Labour was in opposition. Now his pronouncements increasingly irritated a Labour leadership in power. Prime Minister Attlee finally told him, "A period of silence on your part would be welcome." He lost a major libel suit. The Cold War baffled and dispirited him. After the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia, he wrote Frankfurter, "I have a feeling that I am already a ghost in a play that is over." His last years were forlorn. A broken man, he died in 1950 at the age of 57.

Nineteen ninety-three is Laski's centennial, and two biographies have appeared this year in Britain. Thus far, only this one has come out in the United States. Isaac Krammick, an American political scientist known for his work on Edmund Burke and on civic republicanism, and Barry Sheerman, a Labour MP, have written a fair-minded and scrupulous book, sympathetic to Laski but not panegyric in tone nor inclined to overrate the subject.

I comment as one who saw Laski from time to time in the 1930s and 1940s. My father had met him through Frankfurter, and, when Laski visited Harvard, he would occasionally come to our house for dinner. I used to hear him lecture at Ford Hall Forum in Boston. He was a wonder on the podium - speaking in complex, elaborate, intricately balanced sentences that seemed out of control for a moment but always came out right in the end; it was like watching a trapeze artist complete the final leap.

Having enchanted the audience in his lecture, Laski would then open the floor to questions. These he too often disposed of in a condescending, sarcastic way that humiliated the questioners, usually earnest folk, and alienated the rest of us. Watching Laski thus lose his audience, I learned the utility of reformulating dumb questions so that they make some sort of sense and thereby preserving the self-respect of the questioner.

Laski's handling of questions was very likely a hangover from the British custom of putting down hecklers; for he was basically a kind and good man, especially generous to questing Asian, African, and American students. His heart went out to the young and obscure as well as to the old and famous. I observed this attending some of his Sunday afternoon teas when I was at Cambridge University in 1938-39 and later in London during the war. But I was never a favorite of his, and our relationship was somewhat prickly.

I last saw him when he came to Washington in the autumn of 1946. Jim Rowe, one of FDR's early special assistants, summoned a group of New Dealers to meet with Laski. He spoke about the breakdown in relations between the Soviet Union and the West. The blame, he suggested, rested with the United States. He was asked what he thought had been the point of no return. "It was," Laski replied with his usual confidence, "the speech Jimmy Byrnes gave at Stuttgart" - a speech in which the then-secretary of State announced American support for a democratic Germany. Someone spoke up from the back of the room; it was the familiar quavering voice of Benjamin V. Cohen, whom Laski greatly admired. "Harold," Ben Cohen said, "Harold, I'm sorry you feel that way, and I think you have it wrong. I should know - I wrote the Stuttgart speech." Laski looked stricken.

He is forgotten today because he left very little to remember. When young, he seemed destined to be a considerable political theorist. But, for all his erudition, he was neither an original nor a coherent nor a penetrating thinker, as Herbert Deane demonstrated 40 years ago in that notable work of demolition, The Political Ideas of Harold J. Laski. Laski had a Marxist conviction that salvation lay in a planned economy based on the public ownership of the means of production and that, since the capitalist class would not acquiesce in its own liquidation, the cooperative commonwealth was not likely to be attained without violence. But he also had a Holmesian commitment to civil liberties, free speech and association, and representative democracy. It was not easy to reconcile the two.

His Holmesian side immunized him against the Communist party per se. Communists, he said, lie, they intrigue, they falsify, they distort, they indulge in vile personal abuse." He saw the Soviet Union as a police state - "a regime of deliberate and organized repression" - and the Hitler-Stalin pact as a monstrous betrayal. But his Marxist side persuaded him of the innate depravity of the profit system, and he dreamed of a democratic collectivism. Much of the time he could see no enemy to the left.

In his Marxist mood, he dismissed liberalism as no more than the self-serving ideology of the rising bourgeoisie. In his Holmesian mood, he cherished liberal ideals as autonomous and universal. "A socialist by allegiance," George Orwell called him, "and a liberal by temperament." He gave the highest value to individual freedom but never explained how it could survive without diversification of ownership. His fatal fluency enabled him to glide over the hard questions. His besetting sin was the substitution of rhetoric for thought.

The Kramnick-Sheerman book catalogues a number of unresolved contradictions. His political role was ambivalent: "He wanted both worlds: the insider's thrill of influencing events, and the outsider's capacity to criticize and dissent." He called for the overthrow of the ruling class, but he relished their company; "almost as important as attacking the privileged was dining with them." As an intellectual who loved politics, he failed because, as Attlee said, "he had no political judgement." Laski, Kramnick and Sheerman continue, was

fiercely egalitarian yet an intellectual

prone to elitism and cultural snobbery. He

loved America and fiercely criticized it.

He saw Soviet Russia as the harbinger of a

new civilization, and its crimes broke his

heart. He was selfless and generous to a

fault and an indefatigable self-promoter.

He was an erudite scholar and a mass circulation


And then there was Laski's mythomania. He was an incorrigible teller of tales that exaggerated - sometimes fabricated - his own accomplishments, charms, and triumphs. He would write to Holmes that he had recently spent a day with the German medievalist von Below; in a deadpan footnote, Mark Howe, the editor of the Holmes-Laski letters, observed that von Below had died three years before. He would even tell of playing and beating the American tennis star Maurice McLoughlin.

Oddly, some stories that seemed mythological were evidently true. One listened with skepticism to his claim that Churchill used to dandle him on his knee when Harold was a boy. In fact, Laski's father was instrumental in Churchill's winning a parliamentary seat in Manchester in 1904, and Churchill was often in the Laski house. I can remember Laski during the war telling how his hotel was bombed one night as he slept and his bed fell through three floors. Kramnick and Sheerman accept the story as true, but I still can't believe it. Nor can one swallow his claims of intimacy with world figures from Woodrow Wilson to Joseph Stalin.

What somewhat extenuates Laski's inventions, however, is that they lacked malice and were mostly self-puffery. As Rebecca West said, "He exaggerates about 50 percent, but only in areas where it does no harm." The trouble perhaps is that he never grew up; he was the precocious youngster to the end, always seeking ways to call attention to himself. As his devoted wife Frida put it, he was "half-man, half-child, all his fife."

His great triumph was as a teacher. The London School of Economics, where Laski "moulded the minds of so many future leaders" of the Third World, Pat Moynihan once said, was "the most important institution of higher education in Asia and Africa." "The center of Nehru's thinking," said John Kenneth Galbraith, "was Laski" and "India the country most influenced by Laski's ideas." He was, in the words of Kramnick and Sheerman, "a mass preacher and public teacher" swaying wide audiences. But teaching and preaching, for all their multiplier effect, are ephemeral accomplishments. Once the music stops and the man departs, the lone and level sands stretch far away.

This able and judicious book has been ill-served by the publisher. The great justice is repeatedly rendered "Benjamin Cardoza"; the names of Charles A. Lindbergh, Fiorello LaGuardia, Jane Addams, Samuel Eliot Morison, Zechariah Chafee, Clifton Daniel, George Sokolsky, W. H. Chamberlin, and Corliss Lamont are also misspelled. And there are factual errors: The father of Dorothy Straight was not a robber baron; Thomas Nixon Carver was an economist, not a political scientist; Graham Wallas wrote about Francis Place, not William; C. L. Sulzberger was never the publisher of The New York Times; etc., etc. What has happened to editors in this decadent age?

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. is Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at the City University of New York and the winner of Pulitzer Prizes in biography and history.
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Author:Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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