During the 2010 Labour leadership campaign, much was written of the influence of Ralph Miliband, the brilliant Marxist academic and father of two rivals for the job of leader, Ed and David. Yet what of the man who influenced Ralph Miliband?
Harold Laski, who taught Miliband Sr politics at the London School of Economics, was one of the giants of 20th-century British socialism. A panellist of the anti-fascist Left Book Club along with Victor Gollancz and the Labour MP John Strachey, Laski was the most popular – and most argued-about – public intellectual of his time. As an influential figure in the Labour Party, he played an important role in its landslide victory of 1945.
Born in Manchester in 1893, Laski was the son of a Jewish cotton merchant. He was educated at Manchester Grammar School and New College, Oxford; his first job was working as a leader writer on the Daily Herald, then edited by the future left-wing Labour leader George Lansbury. In 1920, after a brief period lecturing in the US, he started teaching politics at the LSE, where he remained until his death.
Laski was an educator par excellence. “His lectures amounted to little in substance if one tried to write them down but they made every student excited about the subject,” recalled Kingsley Martin, who edited the New Statesman between 1930 and 1960. My father, then a young, working-class man just demobbed from the army and interested in social reform, recalls seeing Laski address a packed meeting at Lime Grove in Hammersmith, west London, in the late 1940s, and being similarly enthralled.
In the 1920s Laski espoused mainstream Fabian positions. The capitalist crisis of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression radicalised him. Leaving Labour in 1931, he began a leftwards trajectory that eventually led to his denunciation by the Tory right as a dangerous Marxist revolutionary.
Laski’s position was more nuanced than his detractors made out. A strong supporter of public ownership, he believed that without the socialisation of the means of production all attempts to change society were bound to fail. Although he praised the social advances that the Soviet Union had made since 1917 and opposed an aggressive foreign policy stance towards that country, he condemned Stalin’s totalitarianism.
Decline and fall
Laski rejoined Labour in 1937 and a year later became a member of the party’s National Executive Committee. In 1945, the year Labour won a stunning electoral victory on an authentically socialist programme, he was party chairman. But what should have been his finest hour marked the beginning of his decline. During the election campaign, he was accused of inciting revolution. He sued the newspapers concerned but lost after the judge urged jurors to consider if the statements in question were “the sort of words which Mr Laski would be likely to use”.
Though he was still popular with the rank and file, his influence in Labour waned. In the winter of 1950, he contracted influenza and died, aged 56.
If he were around today, Laski would, I am sure, be appalled at the way the party has embraced privatisation and the “market” economy. He would have taken issue with those who maintain that a more equal society can be achieved without economic reform and socialisation of the means of production.
On Laski’s death, the Labour MP Ian Mikardo said: “His mission in life was to translate the religion of the universal brotherhood of man into the language of political economy.” He was a great influence on one Miliband. Let us hope that, more than 60 years on from his untimely death, Laski can be an influence on another.