Sunday, May 10, 2009

Relevance of Harold Laski

Harold Laski once said, "I really don't think there is anything to say about me except that I am honest and anxious to see a decent world before I die." Time magazine wrote an obituary for Laski titled "History's Revenge", saying "[s]ome people maintain that Manchester was the only place where Harold Laski could have been born. Manchester had nursed the industrial revolution and produced the "Manchester school" of laissez-faire liberals e.g., John Bright, Jeremy Bentham, Richard Cobden. State Planner Harold Laski, the argument went, was History's revenge on the city of Manchester." Laski was professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics [LSE] and advocated Socialism. He greatly influenced a number of Indian leaders who studied in Britain, including Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of India's Constitution. "Political Science" is part of the Law Course at Madras Law College [as it was called then] and "Grammar of Politics" by Laski is prescribed for study. He continues to exert influence and probably has many answers to problems that would come in the future for those prepared to understand his thoughts. The book analyses the judicial process and according to Laski, "[w]hen we know how a nation-State dispenses justice, we know with some exactness the moral character to which it can pretend."

"The Art of the Advocate" by Richard Du Cann presents many tidbits from Laski v The Newark Advertiser Co. Ltd and Parlby.
The brief facts are that, on Saturday, 16th June, 1945, at the height of the General Election, Professor Harold Laski addressed a crowd of over five hundred people, in support of a Labour party candidate at Newark, and as he was about to leave, a journalist from the Newark Advertiser asked him why Laski "openly advocated revolution by violence". The "Newark Advertiser" reported Laski's reply as: "As for violence, he continued, if Labour could not obtain what it needed by general consent, 'We shall have to use violence even if it means revolution'." Laski sued "Newark Advertiser" along with Parly, its Editor and Managing Director, that the report was false and malicious, that, by innuendo, the report meant and was understood to mean that Laski had declared his intention to commit and to conspire with others to commit the crimes of treason, treason-felony, sedition, riot, and breach of the peace and that Laski had been thereby injured in his reputation. The defence claimed the report was fair and that the words did not mean what was alleged in the innuendo. The justification claimed on the basis of pamphlets and books, that Laski had been preaching 'revolution by violence' at Newark as he had throughout his active life. The trial is said to have lasted five days, and the jury decided in forty minutes that the report was fair and accurate. The action was dismissed with costs. They did not go on to decide whether Laski had habitually advocated violence as their decision was just that he used those words at Newark. Time magazine mentions in the above said article that, "Laski had to pay all the court costs of $52,000, including a thumping fee to the paper's lawyer, wealthy Sir Patrick Hastings."

The print media lives by generating heated controversies. Laski fed them with prime fodder.

Harold Laski wrote in 1925, in his "Grammar of Politics", "[e]very legal system involves, in its working, an unprofessional element, of which the jury is the most notable example", and said, "[i]t is, therefore, a matter of importance in any judicial system to confer powers of general jurisdiction only upon persons of trained competence in the law." His own trial two decades later only confirmed his theory.

Qualitative competence in the legal system is something Laski desired deeply. Babbage, Turing, Laski and many others suffered in some way or the other under the system over them. They painstakingly wrote defensively in support of welfare for the majority, but somehow they only got trampled by events in the end.

Time magazine concluded, "Jeffersonian-Marxist Harold Laski, for all his brilliance, had never made it quite clear what he considered a decent world to be." That only shows how widely "Grammar of Politics" was read. History hasn't stopped counting the days past and just started labeling its days as that of the "information era". Laski started his grammar book with the line: "No theory of the state is ever intelligible save in the context of its time." Ever increasing automation and space exploration needs set a new context for state theories. "History's Revenge" would come only when Laski is more widely understood and appreciated. Even if it never does come, it would cause no peril to the reputation of Laski.

[1] "History's Revenge", Time article dated 3rd April, 1950 at,9171,934881,00.html
[2] "LSE-India past and present" at
[3] "A Grammar of Politics", Harold J. Laski.
[4] "The Art of the Advocate", Richard Du Cann