BOOK REVIEW / Reluctant guest at an unwelcoming party: 'Harold Laski: A Life on the Left' - Isaac Kramnick and Barry Sheerman: Hamish Hamilton, 25 pounds; 'Harold Laski: A Political Biography' - Michael Newman: Macmillan, 45 pounds

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FOR MOST of the past 40 years, Harold Laski has been the forgotten man of 20th-century British socialism. Clement Attlee's laconic put-down - 'a period of silence on your part would be welcome' - has been endlessly quoted, usually in a tone implying that if intellectuals are foolish enough to venture outside their study doors they deserve what they get. It is as though the restless, even tormented, theoretical odyssey which once led Max Beloff to describe the interwar years as 'the age of Laski' had never been. At last two new books have punctured the condescension of posterity. In different ways, Michael Newman's study of Laski's thought and Isaac Kramnick's and Barry Sheerman's more conventional biography give new force to Beloff's judgement. In doing so, they suggest a fresh and less complacent reading of Attlee's rebuke.

For most of its history, the relationship between the British Labour movement and its intellectual allies and supporters has been marked by ambivalence, misunderstanding and suspicion. The party machine has been hospitable enough to academic technicians. Indeed, some former technicians - Hugh Dalton and Harold Wilson are the most obvious examples - have climbed to the top of it. But academic technicians are not intellectuals, though they sometimes disguise themselves in intellectuals' clothing. They are not driven by a passion for ideas. They do not ask awkward questions. Above all, they do not challenge the world of power in the name of the world of truth.

Intellectuals do all of these things, or at least threaten to do them. Without the ideas they produce, no party of the left can prosper for long. Labour replaced the Liberals as the main anti-Conservative party in Britain when the intelligentsia deserted liberalism for socialism after the First World War. The haemorrhage of support which has afflicted it for the past 20 years owes as much to its manifest intellectual torpor as to the more obvious sociological factors that preoccupy the psephologists. Wise party managers have had the sense to see that intellectuals are indispensable - Herbert Morrison, the wisest party manager in Labour's history, was unusually perceptive in this respect - and rank and file party members have sometimes done so too. But the machine has always viewed them askance. At best, they have been ornaments, at worst embarrassments.

Laski was both. He was the quintessential intellectual, from diminutive top to elegant toe; an intellectual without remission or disguise. He lived his life in a cataract of words: lectures, seminars, meetings, articles, books. He wrote too much, talked too much, thought too much - mirroring, at times even adding to, the confusions of the age. He was, by turns, a eugenicist, a feminist, a pluralist, a Fabian and a Marxist, but he lacked the intellectual ruthlessness to switch wholeheartedly from one position to another. Traces of his early beliefs lingered uneasily in the interstices of his later ones, producing a fatal propensity for fudge. He was forever trying to blur distinctions, to reconcile the irreconcilable, to have his liberal cake while eating his Marxist one.

More disconcertingly for his admirers, he was equally anxious to have his cake and eat it in his personal life. He saw himself, with some justice, as the hammer of the Establishment; and on more than one occasion, he jeopardised his career by speaking out on behalf of the dispossessed. But he lacked the inner security to live consistently by these convictions. He yearned to belong to the Establishment he was battering, to prove that he could succeed in its terms even while he was challenging them. And so he devoted huge quantities of time and energy to a desperate, sometimes faintly ludicrous search for approval from the great and the good. He name-dropped shamelessly and told so many improbable stories about friendships with the highly placed that he was suspected of making them up even when they were true.

Yet the insecurities that lay behind this double life were emblematic. They were the insecurities of an outsider in a time of flux, when the insiders were weak enough to feel defensive but were also too strong to be brushed aside. A generation earlier, Laski would have had an obscure but honoured career in the Manchester Jewish community into which he was born. A generation later, he would have become Vice Chancellor of a new university and ended up in the House of Lords. As things were, he lived in the margins of several worlds, fully at ease in none of them. He was a Jew in a culture still suffused with a mild, but pervasive, anti-Semitism - but a Jew who broke with his family at the age of 18 to marry a gentile woman eight years his senior. He was a brilliant teacher of a new and suspect subject at a new and suspect institution, the LSE. He was idolised by the ordinary members of a party whose leaders viewed him with a mixture of exasperation and distrust.

The confusions of his thought were emblematic too. They were the confusions of a generous and warm-hearted liberal humanist faced with a rising tide of barbarism: of an optimistic Edwardian progressive condemned to live through the age of totalitarianism. That, no doubt, is why he was so popular with the Labour rank and file. His inconsistencies, vacillations and uneasy compromises were also theirs; and so was the basic decency that lay behind them.

Neither of these books fully explains the sources of that mixture, or its relationship with Laski's thought. Isaac Kramnick and Barry Sheerman give a rounded account of Laski's hyperactive public life, painting, in the process, a sympathetic though far from dewy-eyed portrait of Laski the man. But they are less interested in his ideas. Michael Newman pays more attention to Laski the thinker, but less to the man.

In the end, the reader is left with a conundrum. There is not much doubt that Laski would have made a more enduring contribution to the history of political thought if he had been harder, narrower and more consistent. But given the times through which he lived, was consistency possible for a warm-hearted liberal humanist? Or was fudge the price of his generosity of spirit?