Harold Laski: Reflections on the Revolution in Our Time (1943)


Harold Laski was professor of Politics at the London School of Economics from 1926, having held a number of academic positions in the US and Britain from 1916. He briefly worked for Lansbury’s Daily Herald. He was a member of the Fabian Society’s executive committee and one of the founders of the Left Book Club. He turned down offers of a parliamentary seat, a peerage and a cabinet position in McDonald’s government. On the left of the party, he was a supporter of the Socialist League. A member of the Labour Party national executive committee from 1937, Laski was chairman of the Labour party for 1945/6. Laski wrote about 20 books on political theory and practice, including classic textbooks A Grammar of Politics, The State in Theory and Practice, Liberty in the Modern State, Karl Marx, Communism, Authority in the Modern State, and Political Thought in England from Locke to Bentham. Attlee considered Laski to be an unhelpful critic. Laski died in 1951. There are biographies of Laski by Isaac Kramnick and Barry Sherman (1993) and by Michael Newman (also 1993).

“We cannot hope to achieve the democratisation of economic power if those who now and control property, especially in the era of the giant corporation, are in a position thereby either to acquire special privilege or to act in an arbitrary way. It is difficult to see how we can prevent the growth of these habits unless the vital instruments of production are owned and controlled by the community as a whole directly in its own interest. For there is no other way in which we can end that economics of scarcity which is inescapably involved in the psychology of large scale capitalism, especially where its basis is monopolistic.

I do not think this means the necessity of taking over all industry and agriculture by the state. Rather, I think, it means that the bases of economic power shall be in the hands of the community; once they are assured to the interest of the many instead of the few, the economic future can develop within the framework defined by the possession of these fundamental bases by the historic methods of parliamentary democracy. These are four of these bases.

The most vital is the control of the supply of capital and credit. This means the nationalisation of the Bank of England, the joint stock banks, of the insurance companies, and of the building societies. There is no other way to be sure that investment is directly and continuously related to public need and not to private profit.

The state must own and control land. This is essential for three purposes. It is essential for the proper planning of towns, especially the blitzed areas. It is essential to secure for agriculture the proper place in our national economy. It is essential to secure both the proper location of industry and the preservation of the aesthetic amenities of Britain.

There must be state control of the import and export trade. This control is obviously vital to any planned production which has the interest of the consumer in view…. Without it, clearly, we cannot hope to fit our national economy into that international control of exchanges which is now inevitable….

There must, further, be state ownership and control of transport, fuel and power…. Without the nationalisation of shipping we cannot relate the service to the best results obtainable by state control of imports and exports. Without the nationalisation of railways and road transport, there is … unnecessary duplication and competition….To leave aviation in private hands, after our wartime experience, is obviously impossible…. The nationalisation of coal mines is a psychological necessity ..on experience , it is the only way in which scientific exploitation of coal by-products can be attempted on an adequate scale…. The case for the national ownership of electric power is the simple one… that without the unification which national ownership will bring, rural electricity, so urgent in the rural areas and for agricultural development, will remain impossible without large subsidies to a mass of separate companies. The same is true of gas and water supplies….

It is impossible to entrust functions of this importance to men… who have a direct interest in both the present and the future of the industries they control. In the new system, the sole allegiance of the controller must be to the state he serves.”

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