Harold Laski

Date of birth: 
30 Jun 1893
City of birth: 
Country of birth: 
Date of death: 
24 Mar 1950
Location of death: 
St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, London

Harold Joseph Laski was a political theorist and university professor at the London School of Economics. He is remembered as an important political thinker, intellectual and activist, in particular during the 1930s. Through meeting Winifred (Frida) Kerry, Laski became fascinated with eugenics and he published his first article on the topic, ‘The scope of eugenics’, in the Westminster Review (July 1910). Laski began reading history at New College Oxford, before transferring to study eugenics in London under Karl Pearson. On 1 August 1911, he and Frida eloped to Scotland to get married. Laski soon returned to Oxford and took up the study of history again after losing interest in eugenics.

Through Frida, he became a supporter of the Suffragette movement and also developed close links with the labour movement. He graduated from Oxford in 1914 and took up temporary employment at the Daily Herald, for which he wrote editorials. His attempt to join the army during the First World War was rejected on medical grounds. He accepted a junior lectureship at McGill University where he remained until 1916, before moving to Harvard, where in 1917 he became editor of the Harvard Law Review. While in the USA, Laski developed his pluralist theory to refute the notion of the moral superiority of the state. He argued that the state needed to win its citizens' support by acting in a reasonable way. Laski was a keen supporter of decentralization and encouraging political participation at grass-roots level through work-based organizations. His works on pluralist theory established his reputation as a political theorist. He left the US in 1920 and took up a lectureship at the London School of Economics. Back in England he became closely associated and involved with the Labour Party and the Fabian Society, whose executive committee he joined in 1921. In 1926 Laski was promoted to the Graham Wallas Chair of Political Science at the London School of Economics.

In 1926 he met Krishna Menon who studied with him at LSE. Through his friendship with Menon Laski became closely involved with the India League. Laski was a staunch supporter of India’s move towards independence and argued for India’s right to self-determination. After his return from the US, he and Bertrand Russell spoke at election rallies for Shapurji Saklatvala. Laski’s commitment to India is derived from the case O’Dwyer v. Nair, a libel case O’Dwyer brought against Sankaran Nair, where he sat on the jury.

Laski’s influence on Menon was huge. Indeed heprobably learnt his socialism from his professor. Their relationship went beyond the teacher-student connection, as Laski and his wife took an interest in the welfare of Menon who was prone to depression. Laski met Gandhi and Nehru through Menon and the India League. In turn, Menon could always count on Laski’s support, and he would often give speeches in front of students, or speak at rallies or lobbied the Labour Party. In spring 1930, Laski was asked by Sankey to help with the planning for the Round Table Conference which would deal with the principles of a federal constitution. During the 1931 second Round Table Conference, Laski was closely involved in negotiations, especially on constitutional questions relating to political control of a possible federal Indian army; he also worked on a criminal code and its implementation. Sankey also asked Laski to negotiate with Gandhi and the Agha Khan on the future constitutional status of religion. Yet these efforts failed. Gandhi admired Laski’s commitment to Indian freedom and he often recommended students to study with him. Together with Victor Gollancz and John Strachey he launched the Left Book Club, with which many South Asian writers and activists, such as Mulk Raj Anand, Indira Nehru (Gandhi), and Jawaharlal Nehru also became involved. Laski was elected to the constituency section of the Labour Party national executive committee in 1937, on which he served for 12 consecutive years. He died in 1950.

Published works: 

Authority in the Modern State (London: Oxford University Press, 1919)

Political Thought in England: Locke to Bentham (London: Oxford University Press, 1920)

The Foundations of Sovereignty, and Other Essays (London: Allen and Unwin, 1922)

A Grammar of Politics (London: Allen and Unwin,1925)

Communism (Williams and Norgate, 1927)

Democracy in Crisis (London: Allen and Unwin, 1933)

The State in Theory and Practice (London: Allen and Unwin,1935)

The Rise of European Liberalism: An Essay in Interpretation (London: Allen and Unwin, 1936)

Parliamentary Government in England: A Commentary (London: Allen and Unwin, 1938)

The Danger of Being a Gentleman, and Other Essays (London: Allen and Unwin, 1939)

The American Presidency: An Interpretation (London: Allen and Unwin, 1940)

Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time (London: Allen and Unwin,1943)

Faith, Reason, and Civilization: An Essay in Historical Analysis (London: Gollancz, 1944)

The Secret Battalion: An Examination of the Communist Attitude to the Labour Party (London: Labour Publications Department, 1946)

American Democracy: A Commentary and Interpretation (London: Allen and Unwin, 1948)


Contributions to periodicals: 

‘The India Report’, Nation 140 (2 January 1935)

‘India at the Crossroads’, Yale Review (21 March 1932)

‘The Labour Party and the Left Book Club’, Left News (August 1937)

The Listener

Secondary works: 

Deane, Herbert A., The Political Ideas of Harold J. Laski (New York: Columbia Uiversty Press, 1955)

Kramnick, Isaac and Sheerman, Barry, Harold Laski: A Life on the Left (New York: Allen Lane/Penguin, 1993)

Newman, Michael, Harold Laski: A Political Biography (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1993)

Martin, Kingsley, Harold Laski, 1893–1950: A Biographical Memoir (London: Gollancz, 1953)


Laski’s speech to the Indian independence anniversary celebration in London in 1949.


I do not know how many times I have gone to meetings that I did not want to attend, have made speeches that I did not want to make, have written articles that I had no time to write, because I was under the grim control of the irrepressible embodiment of the will of India to be free, and I look back and what I owe Krishna Menon for having made me attend as a member of his army is a debt that I can never repay.

Archive source: 

General correspondence and sundry materials, papers presented by Granville Eastwood in 1978 and 1981, correspondence between Harold and Frida Laski, University of Hull

3 Folders of Laski correspondence, drafts of manuscripts by Laski, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam 

File of correspondence between Laski and the Labour Party, 1938-50, file on India, 1935-41, National Executive Committee Minutes and association papers, 1937-49, National Museum of Labour History, Manchester

L/I/1/1439, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras