The Left’s Megaphone

Eric Hobsbawm

  • Harold Laski: A Political Biography by Michael Newman
    Macmillan, 438 pp, £45.00, March 1993, ISBN 0 333 43716 0
  • Harold Laski: A Life on the Left by Isaac Kramnick and Barry Sheerman
    Hamish Hamilton, 669 pp, £25.00, June 1993, ISBN 0 241 12942 7

‘It would not be too much to say,’ wrote the otherwise unsympathetic Max (now Lord) Beloff after Harold Laski’s death in 1950, ‘that ... the future historian may talk of the period between 1920 and 1950 as the “The Age of Laski.”’ Thirty-seven years later a leading historian of the Labour Party observed that ‘Laski’s time and reputation have gone into almost total eclipse.’ How did a thinker, writer and political figure of such prominence come to disappear from sight so completely? It is a problem of both biography and intellectual history, for Laski’s impact is inseparable from his personality and style of public appearance. Curiously, after forty years in the shadows he now emerges, almost simultaneously, in two new biographies totalling eleven hundred pages, a fact which would have undoubtedly pleased their subject.

Both Michael Newman’s ‘Political Biography’ and Isaac Kramnick and Barry Sheerman’s ‘A Life on the Left’ rightly insist on their man’s public face. But even his political life was peculiar, if only because this profoundly political man never became a politician, or exerted serious influence on the leading people in his party. The Labour victory of 1945 made his fellow rebels from the Thirties, Cripps, Strauss and Bevan, into architects of the new Britain (all four had been threatened with expulsion from the party for advocating unity with the Communist Party; the other three were expelled for a while), but it marginalised Laski completely. It was not that he objected to being an insider. On the contrary, he wanted to be insider and outsider at the same time, not only in the leadership of the Labour Party but in the general pattern of his life: a sincere revolutionary ‘delighting in playing the political insider influencing a marginal change here and an incremental policy development there’. Or, as Kramnick and Sheerman put it, unkindly: ‘Almost as important as attacking the privileged was dining with them.’ Even more obviously, his public life, his academic career and his personal development were all a series of confrontations and controversies, the life ‘a moving narrative of rebellion, recognition and repudiation’.

Harold Laski is undoubtedly a rewarding subject for psychological analysis, not least because of his notorious and, one would have thought, quite unnecessary mythomania. For he had no need to invent all those intimate contacts with the eminent and the powerful, from Woodrow Wilson to Stalin, about which his friends and enemies joked. He really did know such people: indeed, he had taken care to know them from the start. President Roosevelt asked to see him whenever he came to the US, and used his arguments in cabinet meetings.

Kramnick/Sheerman’s is much the more perceptive of the two biographies because it is keenly aware both that Laski’s ‘Jewishness and his attitude to it were central issues in his life’ and that this made him an anomaly in the Britain of his time, as it would not have done in the US. He was anomalous not only as ‘one of the few Jews among the labour movement’s earnest Christians’, but as an unquestioned upper-middle-class Jew, of neither Sephardic nor German origin, who was as reluctant as older Jewry to identify with what (speaking of the Zionist mathematician Selig Brodetsky, hero of poor immigrant boys in public libraries) he considered ‘the worst type of East End Jew’.

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