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’.

It is difficult to recall how uncertain the position of such a person was. Laski’s rebellion against father and faith at the age of 16 – dramatised by his marriage, at 18, to the ideologically radical but Christian Frida, six years his senior – left him outside the one community which had no trouble accepting an intellectual wunderkind who suffered lifelong bad health and held advanced ideas: that of the prosperous Anglo-Jews who combined Orthodox religion and communal service with enthusiastic cultural assimilation to the English. He probably never fully appreciated the anti-semitism that surrounded him, and which led British officials to refer to him as a ‘snivelling Hebrew’, Hugh Dalton to call him ‘an undersized Semite’ and a Conservative obituary ‘an alien mind imbued and impregnated with an alien philosophy’. Yet the effort to make himself look, all his life, like ‘an enfant terrible among admiring onlookers’ (Lionel Robbins) suggests an insecurity which his American Jewish intellectual friends – a Frankfurter, a Lippman or a Brandeis – did not need to have, because there were more of them.

How far this explains the persistent punctuation of Laski’s career by public controversy it is impossible to tell. The pattern itself is plain. He got on the wrong side of the authorities on political grounds in his first teaching job at McGill in Montreal. His exit from Harvard in 1920 was drowned in political uproar. After a calm beginning, his career at the London School of Economics (where he was given the Chair in Political Science in 1927) was stormy. The crisis came to a head in the early Thirties, when the then Director (Beveridge of the Beveridge Report) suggested that his subversive views and behaviour were incompatible with his position. His career in the Labour Party was the opposite of tranquil and his moment of greatest triumph, as chairman of the Party’s National Executive in the year of the 1945 electoral triumph, was also his year of disaster. He burned his boats with the Labour leadership by asking Attlee to resign, became Churchill’s bogeyman in the election campaign, and lost an ill-judged libel case against an insignificant reactionary who accused him of advocating violent revolution. The problem was not the views which Laski was accused of holding, rightly or not, but his apparent disposition to provoke such public reactions on both sides of the Atlantic. Ironically, for much of his career Laski was not a particularly radical figure. His tragedy was that he remained the enfant terrible all his life.

Oddly enough, one of the few who not only recognised this but forgave him for it was his great antagonist in the glory days of the LSE, Lionel Robbins, the economist who, with his colleague Friedrich von Hayek, represented all that Laski abhorred. Robbins, a genuinely first-rate intellect who settled down to a career among the greatest and best of the Great and the Good, was one of Laski’s few friends among his colleagues – and his constant defender. Indeed, after Laski’s death Robbins, and some others, were so outraged at the hatchet job the Times obituarist did on him, that they prepared a second obituary which set out ‘to convey the personal qualities of the late Professor Laski which endeared him to his many friends’ as well as ‘those qualities which gave him such a remarkable influence in the labour movement’. Robbins recognised not only Laski’s ‘almost juvenile personality – a lack of emotional balance that is nearly painful’, and his loneliness, but his ‘quick apprehension and sense of fun’, his sense of the absurd – and not least his generosity and goodness. (That the Times published the second obituary was, incidentally, unprecedented.)

What did Laski actually achieve? A glance at the Citations Indexes for both Social Sciences and Humanities shows that his 25 books have not survived. Yet he was a man of many gifts. Leonard Woolf, who knew what Keynes and Russell could do, recalled a meeting of Labour sympathisers with Gandhi in London, where he had been bowled over by ‘one of the most brilliant intellectual pyrotechnic displays I have ever listened to’:

Harold ... gave the most lucid, faultless summary of the complicated, diverse expositions of ten or fifteen people to which he had been listening in the previous hour and a half. He spoke for about twenty minutes; he gave a perfect sketch of the pattern into which the various statements and opinions logically composed themselves; he never hesitated for a word or a thought, and, as far I could see, never missed a point. There was a kind of beauty in his exposition, a flawless certainty and simplicity which one feels in some works of art.

He was an unparalleled performer in the lecture theatre, as anyone who ever heard him will confirm. ‘One knew he was lecturing when every few minutes or so a great burst of laughter could be heard through the rest of the building ... Postgraduate students of other subjects ... used to go to Laski’s lectures “when we wished to relax, almost as we might go to a cinema or theatre”.’ He was a teacher of genius, and I cannot think of anyone better at inspiring students, especially those from America and what was not yet called the Third World; no one has inspired more of them. Thanks exclusively to Laski, the LSE became, in the words of Senator Daniel Moynihan, ‘the most important institution of higher education in Asia and Africa’. For most overseas students – and when he came there three hundred out of the School’s two thousand five hundred students were ‘foreign and colonial’ – he was the LSE. An elderly historian in Bogota once told me that it was Laski who inspired him in his life’s work, to write the history of the Indians’ oppression since the Conquest. He had gone to the LSE in the Twenties. ‘What has happened to that institution?’ he asked. ‘Is it still in existence?’

However, the good fairy who had showered the infant Laski with so many mental gifts had withheld two. He was neither an original thinker nor a natural writer, and he never became a good writer, since he wrote too much, too fast, on too many subjects, and without self-criticism and revision. Even at the time of his greatest influence, he was not taken very seriously as a theorist on the intellectual left, though he was, with Shaw, Wells, Marx, G.D.H. Cole and Tawney, among the authors who had had most influence on the Labour MPs of 1962. Unlike Tawney, he produced no text which shaped the vision of socialism; unlike Cole (politically less prominent but far more influential), he produced no histories of the movement which everyone saw as the natural successors to those of the Webbs. Academics paid polite compliments to the early pluralist writings, which were relics of his youthful syndicalism, without actually recommending them. (They may make a modest come-back as part of the post-1989 fashion for anti-state rhetoric.) His magnum opus, A Grammar of Politics (1925), barely floated and has sunk from sight.

Yet none of this stood in the way of his extraordinary prominence from 1931 to 1945. In a way, as John Strachey observed perceptively, ‘the unresolved themes that ran through his books, articles and speeches ... [were] his main strength. It was just this that gave him his hold over the minds of a whole generation of the British Labour Movement. After all, the contradictions were in our minds too – in a sense they were in the objective situation itself.’ He was ‘at bottom a mass preacher and public teacher’, though Kramnick/Sheerman are surely wrong to argue that he was prepared to sacrifice his political and scholarly reputation to ‘his interest in teaching people about and ushering in socialism’. What he preached and taught on the public scene was what most people who turned to the Left in Britain in the years between 1931 and 1945 felt about their own times.

This is what makes Laski interesting as a public figure in Britain, as distinct from the US and India, where he operated essentially on and among the decision-making minority. He belongs to the era of the Great Slump and the fight against Fascism, and behind the puzzled evolution of his opinions lie the traumas of the period: the failures of the Labour Govrnment of 1929-31, the profound shock of Macdonald’s ‘betrayal’ and the setting-up of the National Government, the victory of National Socialism in Germany, the despairing retreat before international aggression and conquest. The history of the Twenties could be written without reference to Laski, for then he represented nothing except himself. It was after 1931 that he became a symptomatic figure, a sort of barometer of the British Left inside and outside the Labour Party (but not in the Communist Party). In 1931 he was a major votegetter in elections for the Labour Party Executive Committee, which remained his ‘powerbase’ (if that is not a question-begging term) thereafter.

The key to his position and that of the Thirties Left was the Left’s isolation. Outside Scandinavia, it had no answer to the Great Slump, except to point to the one economy that seemed immune to it, the USSR, and consequently to call for 100 per cent socialism. Economic policies to overcome the slump came from the Liberal Keynes, against whom Laski, in an American debate of 1934, argued that only public ownership of the means of production could save the US. (Nowhere was he more typical of the British Thirties than in combining a genuine admiration for Roosevelt with admiration and support for the USSR.) Politically the Left had an unanswerable policy: anti-Fascist unity at home and abroad.

Nevertheless, nobody would listen except those who were already convinced, and not even all of them. Except in Scandinavia and the US there was no significant public shift to the left; in large parts of Europe there was a marked shift to the right – in countries where elections could still be held. The victory of the French Popular Front merely demonstrated the necessity of unity. It polled barely 1 per cent more than the combined votes for the Left in 1932. The Labour Party, scarcely recovered from losing a quarter of its electorate in 1931, had no serious prospects of winning an election. Anti-Fascism did not extend its popular base until after Munich, and the radicalisation of opinion which prepared the Labour victory of 1945 was not visible before 1941-42.

The voices of the Left were crying, not exactly in the wilderness, but in despair: against the refusal to unite against Hitler in the Thirties, against the refusal to recognise the potential for social change in the people’s war of 1940-45. Laski was the megaphone through which they spoke. He became a force when he stopped making behind-the-scenes suggestions to decision-makers, and spoke for the perennial opposition: as the Tony Benn of the Forties (but, it must be said, in worse prose).

Here lay Laski’s strength, but also his limits. Once the Left had achieved its triumph, which was to push the Party into breaking with Churchill and to fight the 1945 election on an, by our standards today, inconceivably radical programme, he had no more to say. Or rather, the time for lectures and denunciations, especially from a man who showed a spectacular lack of political judgment, was past. Clement Attlee’s famous put-down (‘a period of silence on your part would be welcome’) was appropriate. There was plenty of scope for a left-wing critique of the Labour Government, but it assumed a recognition of the constraints as well as the potentialities of power which Laski did not have.

His last years, shadowed by the Cold War, of which he became a posthumous victim, were sad. He died in his mid-fifties, of overwork and disillusion. For the new men of 1945, he was (in Denis Healey’s words) ‘a mousy little man with a small moustache and big sorrowful brown eyes’ and ‘more than a touch of Charlie Chaplin’. Except by his former students, he was soon forgotten. His was a personal tragedy but also the tragedy of a certain kind of British left-wing thinker. And yet, would the greatest and most humane reforming administration of the century have come about without him?