Harold J. Laski

Harold J. Laski (1893-1950) was an English political scientist and Labour party leader. Active as a teacher and political theorist, he was also one of the leading writers on democratic socialism.

Harold Laski was born on June 30, 1893, in Manchester, the son of a Jewish cotton shipper. Though his father occupied a position of leadership in the Jewish community, young Laski declared his independence of family and community alike at the age of 18 by marrying a Gentile. In the same year, 1911, he began his undergraduate education at Oxford.

At Oxford, Laski began his studies in science and then switched to history, studying under some of the leading Oxford historians of his day, including Sir Ernest Barker and H. A. L. Fisher. He formed close relationships with a number of important leaders of the Labour party, and wrote articles for the Daily Herald after receiving his degree in 1914.

From 1916 to 1920 Laski taught history at Harvard University, receiving his position partly through the influence of his friend Felix Frankfurter, who was then at Harvard Law School and later was a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Laski also formed a lasting friendship with "the Great Dissenter," Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, of the Supreme Court. During this period Laski produced a number of major works on the nature, powers, and limitations of the modern sovereign state. His chief concern was that the workers should be able to maintain their freedom in the face of the growing demands of the modern state.

In 1920 Laski accepted a position at the London School of Economics and taught political science there until his death 30 years later. He became one of the most influential teachers at the London School and attracted a large number of students from around the world. He also managed to fit considerable political activity on behalf of the Labour party into a crowded schedule of teaching and writing. He campaigned for Labour candidates, was one of the directors of the influential Left Book Club, and was active in the antifascist popular front movement during the Spanish Civil War. The height of his political career was from 1937 to 1949, when he served as a member of the National Executive of the Labour party.

Through the years Laski grew pessimistic about the possibility of achieving socialism through constitutional and democratic means but continued to urge such a course in Britain and the United States. In his writings he argued that Britain and the United States still offered hope that socialism might be attained and democratic traditions in the two countries strengthened and preserved. These ideas were primarily set forth in two of his later major works: Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time (1943) and The American Democracy (1948).

Laski died in London on March 24, 1950. Characteristically, although he had been ill, he had continued teaching, writing, and even political campaigning until shortly before his death.

Further Reading on Harold J. Laski

An authoritative and sympathetic biography of Laski is Kingsley Martin, Harold Laski, 1893-1950: A Biographical Memoir (1953). A definitive, scholarly treatment of Laski's contribution as a political scientist is in Herbert A. Deane, The Political Ideas of Harold J. Laski (1955).

Additional Biography Sources

Eastwood, G. G., Harold Laski, London: Mowbrays, 1977.

Kramnick, Isaac, Harold Laski: a life on the left, New York: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1993.