Paul Temple


Harold Laski Writes a Revolution

(December 1941)

From The New International, Vol. VII No. 11, December 1941, pp. 316–20.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE present war is a continuation of the war of 1914–1918 in more than one respect. I am interested in this article in the recognition and use of revolution as a force of military-strategical importance. Where the first example of this in the First World War – Wilson’s 14-point appeal to the German people over the heads of their rulers-came in the last year of the conflict, and only after the Russian Revolution had demonstrated the intervention of the revolution into the determination of military events, this war began from the first with the recognition on the part of the war leaders of the independent rôle of the peoples in this war of governments. It picked up where the last war left off.

The British leaflet “bombings” of Germany and France, Churchill’s appeal to Italians against Mussolini, the attempt to give the forces here appealed to a concrete expression in the so-called “V” movement in Hitler-dominated Europe – these are phenomena which reflect, through the minds of the capitalist statesmen, the conviction that this is an era of wars and revolutions. Before the war, two quite diverse groups gave frequent utterance to the belief that another world conflict would inevitably engender world-wide revolution; one of these groups was the Marxist revolutionary movement itself, but the other was a number of the most responsible national leaders of the imperialist states and their publicists. Roosevelt and Chamberlain, to mention two, gave public expression to this prediction. Now that the war is on which they nevertheless could not avoid hurrying into, these phenomena represent their attempt to utilize the teeming revolutionary forces for their own military and political ends.

But such playing with revolution is a dangerous game for the capitalist statesmen. And it is clear that they realize that it is a two-edged sword in their hands – Churchill, for example. While his special broadcast to Italy called for revolution against Mussolini, his speech was explicitly directed not to the working class or the masses of people, but to the army heads and the Pope, without even referring to democracy. He was calling for a palace revolution within the fascist régime. When de Gaulle called for a demonstration, a political strike in France against the Nazi conquerors, he took care to appeal for its limitation to one hour.

This gingerly kind of appeal to revolutionary forces, even when it is a case of revolution against Hitler, is also the result of a conclusion from the last war. It is well known that the Allies had a hand in arousing the February 1917 revolution in Russia, which they planned as a palace revolution in order to insure a more stable ally on the eastern front; but it led to more than they had bargained for. The German and Austrian post-war revolutions of 1918, which the Wilsonian program had purported to awaken a year before, similarly teetered on the brink of passing the boundary beyond which it would be acceptable to its would-be sponsors.

Churchill might like to turn the underground revolutionary streams to cleanse the Augean stables of Hitler-controlled Europe; but far more important to him is to refrain from releasing the flood of a revolution which he well knows could just as easily sweep away the whole capitalist-imperialist system and the British Empire with it. He has no wish to play the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and wisely doubts his ability to ride whirlwinds.

This trepidation toward using the weapon of anti-fascist revolution for victory over Hitler is natural to the practical-minded war leaders who do not take too seriously their own talk of “everything against Hitler.” It is also natural that the left wing of the pro-war democrats should seize upon this hope, or that it should be pointed to by those whose lack of official responsibility for the conduct of capitalist politics lends no restraint to their demagogy.

With relation to Churchill, these appear as advocates of a “radical” democratic program for the conduct of the imperialist war.

The fullest presentation of this point of view thus far has been made by the British Labor Party’s professor, Harold J. Laski, in his book Where Do We Go from Here? [1] Laski is sometimes spoken of as representing the “left wing” of the Labor Party, or even referred to as a Marxist; to steal a phrase, it is a kind of “Marxism-on-the-half-shell,” a compromise between an intellectual understanding and an opportunist politics, which does not permit theoretical formulations to stand in the way of worldly prudence.

“War by Revolution”

Now Laski’s thesis goes further than the necessity of invoking the German revolution. He follows through to the corollary that such a revolution depends on the socialist transformation of England itself, right now, in order that the appeal to the Germans may be effective; and secondly, in order that the abolition of “privilege” at home (his regular synonym for “capitalism”) might steel the resolution of the British people to prosecute the war to victory.

Insofar as his book is an argument for this proposition, it is a powerful exposition of the socialist answer to the question: how stop Hitler. It is especially effective because it is clear throughout that Laski is not merely seizing on the war situation as a pretext for once again making socialist propaganda; but that it is the result of a conviction forced upon him by analysis and fact that the victory over fascism requires accomplishing the socialist revolution now and not postponing it until after the war. He emphasizes that, in his view, the necessity for revolution now is an unfortunate fact, with undesirable accompaniments, but unavoidable nevertheless if victory is to be achieved. He repeats often that the immediate socialization of England is the “price of victory” – a phrase which would otherwise be somewhat peculiar on the lips of a socialist.

“It is certainly my own sober judgment that no war in modern history has aroused less of the martial spirit than this war,” writes Laski, a conservative statement now fully borne out on this side of the Atlantic also. What accounts for this comparative apathy? The feeling of the masses that this is a war for the defense of capitalist privilege and that they will have no share in the fruits of victory. How can they help doubting the idealistic character of the war when they see the rich have sacrificed little while they have sacrificed everything?

Privilege still obtains preference in appointments. Privilege is still able to organize escape for the children of the comfortable. Even in internment questions, the cloak of privilege has been used to protect aristocratic enemy aliens while humbler but well-tested fighters against fascism whose nationality is, at the moment, formal, have been sent into internment camps. Immense powers have been taken by the government over persons and property, but so far those powers have been exercised rather over persons and their rights than over property. The trade unions cheerfully surrender, knowing full well the risks they run, the economic safeguards they have built up after years of effort; we do not hear of any parallel surrender on the part of the employers. That high dividends continue to be paid, not seldom in the firms connected with the war effort, is evidence of the persistence of that rentier mentality which is of all foes of democracy the most insidious and pertinacious. The inevitable increase in the cost of living has already begun to affect the workers’ standard of life; it cannot yet, at any rate, be seriously said that the increase in taxation has seriously affected the pleasant ways of life to which the rich in Great Britain are accustomed. The war has profoundly affected the quality and quantity of the education that is offered to the poor; it has but slightly affected that of the rich. (Pages 132–133)

How can the masses be greatly inspired to sacrifice all for victory when even –

If the war ended with victory tomorrow, it would find virtually unchanged the relation of privilege to the masses. And this means that all the social problems we confronted on the eve of the war would remain unaltered, save that the economic balance-sheet of capitalist democracy would, if the experience of the last war is any guide, toughen and tighten the resistance of the privileged to continuance of a policy of social reform ... We should have emerged from the struggle with an unchanged dynamic and with the position of the masses in the strategy of economic power greatly worsened. That way, I believe, lies disaster, since it presages the certainty of a social conflict that will threaten the democratic structure for which we have been fighting. (Pages 134–135. My emphasis)

Socialist revolution now, therefore, is essential to victory since “as this is accomplished, it at once steels the endurance and resolution of the masses and, as knowledge of it permeates the countries now under the fascist yoke, it will light flames there that no terrorism will be able to quench,” because “we prove to the victims of fascist conquest what the implications of our victory mean for the masses amongst them.”

Although Laski does not mention it, the converse of this is true now. Where the British masses are less than in any modern war fired with enthusiasm for the defense of the status quo, the conclusion drawn by the masses under Hitler from the same facts is that England offers them nothing worth revolting for. “The implications of our victory” now are, for them, another Versailles robbers’ peace, national disgrace and obliteration, the imposition of crushing post-war burdens which would have to be borne by the workers, without even a democratization of the régime.

And, to cap the climax, Laski indicates several times (as we shall mention below) that British victory without revolution would very likely or even certainly mean ... fascism in England itself! Such would be the fruits of victory for the working class!

All this is on Laski’s positive side; and before proceeding to the Mr. Hyde aspect of his schizophrenic politics, we can add more. Dr. Jekyll-Laski not only admits but cogently proves that:

  1. Up to the outbreak of the war, the British government and a “long list” of British leaders not only applauded but deliberately aided Hitler. There is a word for the “shameful” pro-Hitler policy of the Bank of England (page 44). Chamberlain comes in here most frequently as the tackling dummy – his qualifications for that role lie in the fact that he has departed this life as well as office – but Laski is well aware of, although silent on, Churchill’s pro-fascist attitude.
  2. England gave up Spain, Czechoslovakia and Austria as an offering to Hitler, but was “profuse in guarantees of protection to semi-fascist states like Poland and Greece and Rumania.”
  3. These policies were followed not because the British leaders were “deceived” but because they “felt a common interest with fascism in its anti-democratic attitude, above all in the example it had given of the disciplining of the working-class institutions.”
  4. They fought, in the end, only when Hitler began threatening their own vital interests. “At that point came the drift to war and, with it, the identification by that governing class of the protection of British interests with the preservation of democracy. But that was essentially a rationalization produced by the psychology of war, the discovery by the governing class of the necessary basis of national unity.” (Pages 53–54)
  5. They are not prosecuting the war as a war for democracy. This is shown by the talk in top circles of a “palace revolution” in Germany as a war aim, substituting “good” fascists for bad; by the lack of a revolutionary-democratic appeal to the German people; by the facts of class distinctions in England itself mentioned above; by the fact that the regime maintained in India “competes, in barbarism and squalor, with that of the outlaws (Nazis) of Europe,” and so forth.

The man who writes all this is the same man who acts in England and writes in his book, as an enthusiastic supporter of the war. Dr. Jekyll proves that it is not a war for democracy in its origin, motivating cause, or mode of prosecution; that (without revolution at home) its consequences will not be democratic but fascist for England itself. Mr. Hyde asserts that, notwithstanding, it is a war for democracy; he tells the working class to surrender their labor rights in the interests of victory; he exhorts them to support the Churchill government! All this, not only in the same man, but in the same book!

Two questions naturally arise: (1) How Laski reconciles these two lines of thought, in his own defense; and (2) why such a double-barrelled position arises in the first place.

Laski Thinks Up a New One

Laski puts forward two reasons why, in spite of all, this is a war for democracy. The first one is truly amazing and quite original. The argument goes as follows:

Examine the material basis of fascism and capitalist democracy. Germany and Italy turned fascist first because they were poorer in colonies and wealth and therefore lacked the material conditions for keeping their working classes sufficiently satisfied under a democratic system. Similarly, capitalist democracy still exists in England and America by grace of the fact that capitalism there is still wealthy enough to afford it. This is sound enough, so far, but the conclusion is:

It was clear that their [the Nazis’] ambitions were in fact unbounded and that they could not defeat the capitalist democracies without depriving them of those material conditions in which the basis of democracy could be maintained.

In this sense, the critics of Great Britain and France who have denied that ... these powers were fighting for democracy were guilty of a half-truth. (Page 70)

Because, forsooth, Germany’s victory would take away the wealth of the British capitalists and make it necessary for them to institute fascism in England, therefore these gentlemen can be said to be fighting for democracy now! The cringing slave cries to his master: “I will work twice as hard for you, my Lord, in order that you may not find it necessary to whip me!”

Both Mr. Chamberlain and M. Daladier could honestly hold that they were fighting for democracy for two reasons. First, if either was defeated, his country would no longer be able to maintain a democratic system in the sense in which each of them understood that term; and, second, ... in comparison with the fascist system, no serious observer could honestly deny the reality of the democracy in capitalist democracy. (Page 70–71)

England is more democratic; therefore it can be said to be really fighting for democracy. There is racketeering in trade unions, as the Chamber of Commerce asserts; therefore the bosses are really fighting for honest unionism, as they claim. If England had joined in war against Russia, as some hoped, would Laski have still whooped up the war on the ground that, in comparison with the Stalinist system, “no serious observer could honestly deny the reality of the democracy in capitalist democracy”?

[Incidentally, Laski makes precisely such a denial on another page: “No class of men is free which has only its labor-power to sell. And this is to say that no state in which such a class of men exists can in any real sense be a democracy” (page 161). But this of course is only abstract theory and must not be allowed to interfere with politics …]

Victory – and Fascism

Laski’s more serious argument is that British defeat means British fascism. We are glad to note that at least he does not put it as if a victorious Hitler would forcibly impose fascism on a desperately democratic British capitalist class; he frankly admits that the present rulers of England would in that case enthusiastically adopt fascism under their own steam. After all, his authority for that is none other than his white hope, Winston Churchill, who said less than a year before the outbreak of the war: “I have always said that if Great Britain were defeated in war I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among the nations.”

It is therefore doubly important to refer back to Dr. Jekyll-Laski’s conviction that fascism is pretty certain in Britain in any case – if there is no revolution now. And he is quite categorical about it, in spots.

I only say that if we should will to do so [accomplish revolution at home] we have the power and that, without that will, a fate akin to France is certain to be ours. (Page 167)

Even in the event of British victory

... the labor leaders who are pledged to a socialist reconstruction of our society will find themselves fighting the very men with whom they are now in partnership as soon as fascism has been defeated. And at that stage the clear danger emerges that those in a capitalist democracy who fear for their privileges in the conflict will suppress the democracy rather than risk the privileges they enjoy under capitalism. I think that danger is very real. (Pages 124–125)

I have already quoted Laski’s prediction of the worsened position of the workers in a post-England torn by economic difficulties, whereas “privilege” —

... then emerges from the war with its own defenses unbroken, with concessions made that can easily be withdrawn, on the ground that the nation must cut its coat according to the cloth ... and with the workers deprived of those regulations by which in peace they are able to protect their standard of life. To argue that in such a situation the forces of democracy would meet those of privilege on equal terms is fantastic. (Page 145)

Victory or not, after the long war effort far more exhausting than the last, England would find itself in the position that post-war Germany was in: a continuous class struggle under conditions of the deepest-going economic depletion and chronic crisis – precisely the setting in which in desperation the German capitalists called in Hitler. It is not to be wondered that Laski admits the danger of fascism as the result of victory is very real, since he has already spent a whole section of his book proving in detail that:

  1. Under such conditions, where democratic freedoms embarrass the functioning of capitalism or threaten its existence, the capitalist “democrats” have regularly turned fascist.
  2. The working class will have been weakened in its ability to fight back because of its concessions during the war, the weakening of its organizations, militancy and legal channels of action (all made in the interests of victory, we may note, at Laski’s behest).
  3. In England itself, the forces making for fascism have been and are at work even now (page 149, and “the power of a plutocracy” rules there (page 33):

It is important, moreover, to remember that in all the capitalist democracies the vital positions of control were effectively barred from access to the masses. In Great Britain, for example, the offers of the defense services, the higher civil service, the judicial bench, even the professoriate of the universities, were overwhelmingly staffed from the upper and middle classes.

When Laski argues then that this is a war for democracy because defeat means fascism, it is only by dint of “forgetting” that the very thesis of his book is that victory, without revolution, entails a similar fate.

Pity a poor liberal professor tossed on the horns of a dilemma! For Laski, as he goes along, reveals still another formulation of opinion in this valiant struggle to make it out to be a war for democracy. Consider this gem:

Without that revolution both the war and the peace will be no more than a dispute about the character of a social order which has twice brought us to world conflict and will bring us to it again if we seek no more than its preservation. (Page 190)

There is a longer passage to the same effect elsewhere. What does it mean?

The character of this war, democratic or imperialist, depends upon whether a revolution takes place or not. This is, so to speak, a war for democracy in potentiality only; if the British government does not go socialist, history will call it an imperialist war. In acting as a social-patriot now, I, Harold J. Laski, am supporting the potentiality only; I am merely acting now as if the revolution has already been made – in anticipation, in a manner of speaking. Pending the transformation of the imperialist war into a revolutionary war, I support the actual imperialist war going on now.

At this point we can begin to explain Laski. For this makes it obvious that in his thinking the line of demarcation between an imperialist Britain and a socialist Britain must be very thin indeed, since it has no bearing on his attitude toward a war by one or the other. And so the case is, indeed.

Revolution by Consent

For I have been holding something back in this discussion of Laski – something which, it is true, does not become clear until the last section of the book. As we have seen, Laski today has no inhibition against flinging about the term “revolution” (it must be popular in England!), but there is a joker in it all. The joker consists in (1) what he actually means by a “revolution” now; and (2) to whom he addresses his demand for it.

What Laski is advocating throughout is what he calls a “revolution by consent” – by the consent of the Churchill government and of the capitalist class itself! The ruling class is being politely requested and urged to lend an ear to the woes of the workers and graciously agree to abolish capitalism voluntarily! The whole book is simply, and overtly, an Open Letter to Churchill and the Capitalists; even to its use of the pronouns “we” and “they,” the latter used regularly to refer to the workers, the former to Laski and his addressees. Shades of Robert Owen, Shaw’s Socialism for Millionaires and the Oxford Movement!

What is he actually requesting? “Obviously enough,” he says apologetically, “the pressure of the war effort must make it [the “revolution”] symbolical rather than conclusive, but we must not forget the degree to which men [he means professors] live by symbols.” What symbols would satisfy him?

  1. Abolition of the 1927 Trade Union Act, imposed as a draconic penalty on the unions for the general strike of 1926.
  2. Educational reforms.
  3. “Three or four measures” toward nationalization of industry.

That’s all. This is Laski’s “revolution now” – this mouselike squeak after his pages of “revolutionary” roaring. But perhaps this is an injustice, for his peroration reverts once more to a demand to “begin now the “socialization” of British economy.

But if Laski is really serious about inaugurating the socialist revolution under the auspices of Churchill and Beaver-brook, one wonders why he took the trouble to expound at such great length the thesis, mentioned above, that the “democratic” capitalists have always hung on to their economic power by tooth and claw, if necessary by scrapping democracy, and that the British ruling class was pro-Hitler before 1939 because of its “common interest” in his straight-jacketing of the working class.

Or perhaps the key to his maundering is given by his quotation from Sir Neville Henderson, who tended to look benignly on Goering as a counterweight to Hitler: “Goering,” said Henderson, “may be a blackguard, but he is not a dirty blackguard.” These fine distinctions are attractive to professors; the English capitalists may be fascists at heart, like the rest, but they are Anglo-Saxon fascists and therefore rational English gentlemen, susceptible to reasoned and intelligent demonstration of the bankruptcy of their system, if it is carefully made without any Marxist jargon.

For Laski plows seriously ahead into the task of convincing his audience that he knows what’s best for them. Here is his Intelligent Capitalist’s Guide to Socialism:

  1. If you reject my modest proposal, that will prove this is not really a war for democracy, and that you are merely interested in imperialism. For shame! (Page 143)
  2. If you don’t swallow this peacefully, by consent, somebody else (not me!) is going to feed it to you by knocking you over the head, with some violence. (Page 166)
  3. This way, you will have more time to adjust your habits to socialist society than if it all happened very suddenly. (Page 166)

And a little more seriously perhaps:

  1. Revolution at home is the only way to stop Hitler. You are therefore faced with the choice between-fascism and socialism. And the latter will take away less from you than will the fascists: “what it exacts from the privileged is far less than the outlaws [tascists] would demand.” In fact, Messrs. Capitalists, you are being offered socialism at bargain rates, specially priced for immediate sale and guaranteed not to hurt.

“It is therefore,” pleads Laski, “as I conceive, the part of wisdom to satisfy them [the masses]; ... to cooperate with the masses in beginning now the revolution that has become necessary, has immense advantages.”

To the general reader, he has another word of explanation, demonstrating that the war emergency makes such a “revolution by consent” possible today. It would seem that the war has aroused a deep sense of unity, exuded an atmosphere of experimentalism, novelty-seeking and deroutinization, and brought about a general disposition to sacrifice, all of which has so softened the hearts of the fascist-minded British capitalists that a revolution by consent has now a basis in the “impulse of magnanimity!” This is the note on which the book ends.

The Dilemma of Revolutionary Defensism

This is enough attention to the comic spirit. Laski has been at least acute enough to see a certain distance, and further than any but the revolutionary Marxists: that only socialist revolution can stop fascism in the world today, on both sides of the trenches. But his dilemma is that he still remains a supporter of the war. Convinced of the necessity of a socialist transformation of England, shall he seek to arouse the spirit of proletarian revolution against the government, with the accompanying specter of possible civil conflict resulting? That was all right for Lenin (Laski even has a word of praise for it – as a pecularily Russian method!) but not for a reasonable Britisher.

He wishes both to support the present war and to urge a socialist revolution at the same time. That the two are incompatible is a grievous embarrassment. It can only be resolved by choosing one or the other: continue support to imperialism and help tie the working class up into knots, or to put socialism and the class struggle first. By choosing the former, as he does, he helps make a revolution from below impossible and must therefore have recourse to the soft-headed idea of a revolution by Order-in-Council. One of the by-product values of the book is. that, in the course of his analysis, he makes crystal clear the insoluble dilemma of the would-be revolutionary-defensist in this imperialist war.

But there is another meaning to Laski. Without attempting to apply the well known “sincerometer” to him, it is perfectly true that he plays a rôle in British war propaganda which cannot be taken by Churchill, Beaverbrook or even the official Labor Party leaders. That is to supply a rationalization of the war for those workers who regard the official war propaganda with cynicism and who are unwilling to pigeon-hole their socialist aims for the duration of the war. The Labor Party leaders are handicapped, in the field of “socialist” pro-war demogogy, by their governmental responsibility. Laski is free to take up a position on the left flank of imperialism’s line against the workers’ anti-war movement.

Even as this is written, however, Churchill has given his answer to Laski’s Open Letter, in his statement to the American press conference that “we do not expect a revolution against the Nazis.” To Laski as to us this must mean: We do not intend to change our methods in order to provoke one; indeed, we do not wish to provoke a real revolution on the continent. How long will the honest British revolutionary-defensists wait before deciding that, if the imperialist war is to be transformed into a socialist revolutionary war, this must be accomplished by the independent class struggle movement of the working class itself and against the British ruling class and its government? Where do they go from here?


1. Harold J. Laski: Where Do We Go from Here? A Proclamation of British Democracy, by a Labor Party Spokesman. New York 1940, Viking.

Last updated on 28 October 2014