The Holmes-Laski Letters

Harold J. Laski was approaching his thirty-third birthday and Mr. Justice Holmes his eighty-fifth, and the friendship between them had been ripening for a decade, when the letters which follow were being written. The selection begins in mid-February, 1926, when Laski, who had taught at Harvard and then been appointed to the London School of Economics, was on his way to revisit the United States. He had been under attack as a radical and the Justice was a little uneasy at the thought that he would not be admitted. We are indebted to MARK DEWOLFE HOWE,the editor, and to the Harvard University Press, which will publish the Holmes-Laski Letter at the turn of the year, for the privilege of presenting this second installment.


MY DEAR JUSTICE: Everything now is arranged. I have my passage booked, a visé from your consul on my passport, and nothing to do except wait for March 20. I assume that I shall not be detained at Ellis Island, as I have never been divorced, am not an anarchist ora polygamist, and do not believe in the violent overthrow of established governments. I need not tell you how the prospect of talk with you both heartens me. It will be a great adventure.
My chief news will, I think, please you. I have been given the chair of political science in the university. That means 33% of my income, the chief say in the teaching of the subject in the university as a whole, and the consequent chance, about which I care much, to make the department really important. I am very pleased about it, as there are all kinds of plans in my head for which I can now seek fruition. And if I can get someone like Eugene Meyer to give me a small fund for the purpose of publication, I think I can get some good work into the hands of scholars. . . .
The week has gone quietly in work. In reading I have mainly been busy with Clarendon whom I had not read since I was a schoolboy. I found him stately but irritating; and the impression is like you would feel if you found yourself naked amid an audience in full Court dress. Then a good dose of the Spectator which I found wholly delightful especially the attractive essay on the Bank of England. Also I read Trotsky’s book on the future of England [Whither England? (1925)], which I thought able in parts but also full of elementary misunderstandings of the British Constitution and the habits of our people. But what struck me more than all was to realise (perhaps you had noticed it) that the whole Bolshevik-psychology is simply Hobbes redressed in Marxian costume. It’s very interesting put in that way for it throws a flood of light on recesses otherwise dim and explains, above all, the terrorist element in their actions. What puzzles me in the book is the naïveté with which an obviously able man assumes that ipso facto his violence is right and your violence wrong. His diagnosis of some of our statesmen has real insight; but, equally, some of it (to me) is absurdly wrong. . . .
I had a good bookhunt last week and found some pleasant trifles circa 1640. But what pleased me much was to find a superb graving of Voltaire by Moreau le Jeune for a couple of pounds. It is done from a wax-statuette and brings out almost diabolically the verve and diablerie of his features. It is in pretty good condition, though you, as a connoisseur in these matters, would complain of the cropped margins. And one other thing I bought which, child-like, pleased me, namely a copy of Blackstone given by him to Mansfield for which I paid ten shillings. I was amused by the fact that the set does not show signs of much usage. Two or three pages in each chapter have not been cut. But, aprés tout, Mansfield had no need to read Blackstone. I must not forget to tell you of the death of a fellow of Trinity Cambridge aged 97. His funeral was attended by a brother of 99. The latter was much distressed and said he had always told his junior that theological research was not compatible with longevity. “God,” he solemnly told Rutherford, “does not mean us to pry into these matters.” After the funeral the old man went back to Trinity and solemnly drank his half-bottle of port. He was asked his prescription for health and said with great fervour “Never deny yourself anything.” He explained that he had never married as he had found fidelity restrictive as a young man. “I was once engaged, when I was forty,’ he said, “and I found it gave me very serious constipation. So I broke off the engagement, and the lady quite understood.”He was very anxious not to be thought past the age of flirtation. The vicar, he said, found his presence very helpful at evening parties. I thought he was sheer delight for it was all so absolutely unconscious, but, to my amusement, two deans were shocked beyond words. I took the old man back to London and put him on his way to the Midlands and have rarely had a better journey. Twice he refreshed himself lustily from a flask of claret and once insisted on my sharing it with him. He told me he still had his pint of champagne for lunch but that it did not mean to him what it used to do.
Our love to you both, and every good wish,
Ever affectionately yours,

Washington, D.CFebruary ,11, 1926
MY DEAR LASKI: This ought to be the last or the last but one from me before your welcome coming. I hope, I repeat, that you have made sure that there will be no obstacle to your entry here. I am ignorant as a child about it, beyond a vague notion that one is liable to be surprised. . . .
After getting away from the flabbiness of a cold I walked into the dentist’s trap and am no free man. I have, however, touched off two little dissents so far as to get them in proofs — one concurring in a few words with a colossal piece of work by Brandeis, and the other on my own, concurred in by him, for not applying the XIV Amendment to a state case that is before us. Also I have read one or two books, the most notable Symonds’s translation of Benvenuto Cellini, not read since boyhood when Roscoe’s version was all we had. I could not but chuckle to think that I saw under Symonds’s would be cosmopolitanism the inner domination of the “We don’t do that in England,” which is so apt to be the Briton’s last word. I dare say the same local standards prevail elsewhere but I am more conscious of it with the English, although even Montesquieu taught one to associate Little Pedlington with the Boulevards. . . .
Yesterday p.m. I went to my shelves and took down two volumes nearly at random. One was a life and sermons of Whitfield, interesting mainly because he is buried at Newburyport. I think you prostrated to his coffin when we went over there one day. I didn’t read much but was reminded of Sainte-Beuve and Pascal by his discourse on election and reprobation and of what is said of Edwards by his satisfaction in believing that most of us are eternally damned. I found his language rather surprisingly modern and direct. Soon I put him down and turned to the other, which was Volume 1 of an old 4 volume edition of Horace Walpole’s letters which began with his remembrances of the Courts of George the First and Second. I find that so delightful for an irresponsible moment that I think I shall keep on. Hang it, one can’t be seeking improvement all the time. Mostly I avoid books that don’t help to strengthen the foundations or at least add a flying buttress, but if I ever am to be allowed any levity it is time for it now. Yet it doesn’t come natural to say, My time for expecting to contribute anything is over — serious amusement is all that is left. I dunno — one goes up and down. I think that I will go forth and walk an inch and a half. I did so yesterday for the first time for a fortnight. ... I am a little anxious about your dates. From March 22 to April 12 we are adjourned, then we sit till May 10. I hope for the best.
Aff’ly yours,

On Board the Cunard H.M.S. “Berengaria,” April 23, 1926
MY DEAR JUSTICE: I literally have no words to tell you what those days in Washington meant to me. I did not need to revise beliefs, or renew allegiance; those had been made in aeternum. But I found that all I had treasured as a great memory had the old beauty and more. I put it in the treasure house of remembrance as among the great things I have experienced. To you both my old homage and affection made deeper and more intense by new richness.
America has been a great adventure. To find Felix not less electric than ever, and to take up talk with him as though it ceased but yesterday was superb. And I am so much in agreement with many of the results of Brandeis’s thinking that I had from him (apart from the fresh sense of his compelling charm) the satisfaction of guessing that my own diagnosis was not entirely wrong. New York was especially kind to me. Mack, J. especially helped me to meet Cardozo and Hough: the former a nature as exquisite as his mind is perceptive, the latter a fine, masculine mind with something of the nature of Bluff King Hal at its base. I saw your ex-secretary Benjamin and his charming young wife. Morris Cohen I had a great evening with. He has mellowed greatly, and I was particularly glad to find that he and I (like you, I believe, too) had not dissimilar views on Pound. I met also a young physiologist from the Rockefeller Institute, Alfred Cohn, whom you must sometime meet. He has, I believe, a big reputation; but even more important, he has a wonderfully tempered mind. And the New Republic gave me a dinner at which the talk was quite thrilling; I learned much of an America too often hidden from the sojourner of so brief a moment as mine. I felt, again, too that with many limitations and a certain heaviness of method, Croly is really a big fellow, patient, curious, sincere and penetrating. So long as there are people of his quality around, your future as a nation is not without its guarantees. But this is not a letter so much as a salute. I need not tell you both how warm is ray affection and how eagerly it greets you. I shall resume writing so soon as I am straight at home.
Ever affectionately yours,

Washington, D.C., May 13, 1926
MY DEAR LASKI: Your letter from shipboard moved me in my marrow, but I have delayed in writing from day to day owing to the uncertainty and anxiety I have felt and feel as to your public affairs. I suppose you are in the thick of it — I have much confidence in the business sense of the nation but one can’t talk freely while things seem to hang in the balance. I shall say but a word or two therefore. (1) I also met Cardozo the other day and thought his face beautiful with intellect and character. I had only a limited chance to talk during the short time he was here — with others.
(2) I read with surprised satisfaction Murray’s History of Political Science, etc. His slight whiff of the parson or the Hegelian at moments did not prevent my finding it most interesting and compactly instructive.
(3) I am reading out of regard to my friend Wu, Stammler’s Theory of Justice. I have read 228 pages and though he seems a noble-minded moralist, I confess so far it has been simply marking time, and with tedious iteration impressing upon the reader the difference between an abstract scheme regarded as applicable to all possible controls of the law, and the empirical contents. As I don’t believe the postulate— and think morality a sort of higher politeness, that stands between us and the ultimate fact — force — I am not much edified. Nor do I see how a believer in any kind of evolution can get a higher formula than organic fitness at the given moment.
(4) Your impression of Croly is like my own, but he can’t write — and he tends to give a pedagogic tone to his discourse that makes me shrink from it. I tremble as I send this off—but affectionate thoughts and hopes go with it.
Yours ever,

16 Warwick Gardens, 2.V.26
MY DEAR JUSTICE: Let us resume operations. . . . I am glad to be back; but I have rarely spent so interesting and profitable a time as those weeks with you all. It was not merely the joy of finding that the impalpables do not rust with time; nor even the acute pleasure that the feeling-out of other minds gives one (after all the greatest of pleasures). It was the experience of being plunged suddenly into a totally different civilisation with different assumptions at its base. If I wasn’t entirely convinced, I was throughout fascinated; and the spectacle, all in all, is impressive. . . . The days with you and Felix had a quality that one encounters only two or three times in life. I shall not forget them.
I came back to find Frida and Diana both very fit; but we tremble on the verge of terrible events here and I do not know what will happen.1 I have a deep sense within me that before the general strike begins on Tuesday, Baldwin will somehow have found means of accommodation, for, as I wrote to him last night, the breakdown seems to me rather the misunderstanding of tired men than any ultimate difference. I hope so; for a general strike, if at all prolonged, would loose forces of a kind that make for changes too vast to come rightly or wisely without deliberate plan. . . .
Ever affectionately yours,

16 Warwick Gardens, 23.V.26
MY DEAR JUSTICE: A grand letter from you yesterday was like a fragrant scent in a dismal world. You can imagine that it has been a time of immense strain, made, I think, the worse by the fact that it was all perfectly unnecessary. On the night when negotiations broke down, a settlement had practically been reached, and had it not been for the blustering stupidity of Churchill, there would have been no stoppage at all. You will not, I am sure, have been deluded by all the talk of revolution and challenge to the government. From first to last it was a purely industrial dispute carried out with amazing good temper and orderliness by millions of men who could not without shame see the miners’ wages reduced to between ten and twelve dollars a week. I speak whereof I know; for I carried out the earlier private negotiations with the government on behalf of the unions, and the ultimate settlement was upon a draft I had written. This, of course, is strictly between ourselves; I have not even written it to Felix. And you will not need me to say that, on this issue, had the question of a challenge to constitutional government been in question, I should not have tried to help the trade unions. My own feelings were put admirably by Keynes in the New Republic of May 19th. It was a piece of bungling, due to hotheads in the cabinet who wanted to “teach labour a lesson.” I come out of it with intense respect for the qualities of the working-man. And of those in high place with whom it was my business to deal, Baldwin and Birkenhead won new esteem from me. The first isn’t able, but he really has character and an absence of vindictiveness, though he lacks strength of will. Once you broke down his oratorical habits, he was resourceful, quick, full of intelligence, and with a great flair as a draftsman. Churchill was contemptible and on two or three occasions we had high words. He saw himself as a pinchbeck Mussolini, and if he had not been restrained, he would have done infinite mischief. I know no tragedy so great as that where men of goodwill are kept from each others minds, and that is the tragedy Winston precipitated.
Well, it was a fortnight’s grim labour, which ought, at least, to enable me to write a much better book on communism than I could have done before. It also convinces me that there really isn’t much to be said for “muddling through.” You may win your end, but you pay a heavy price. The miners are still out, and unless there is a return to my basis, they will stay out. There, again, Churchill and his friends in the cabinet have done infinite mischief; for whereas the basis was honourable to all parties, Winston, at the threat of resignation, has compelled Baldwin to introduce changes the miners cannot reasonably be asked to accept; and Baldwin lacked the courage to tell Winston to resign and be damned. Now we are trying to get the parties together on the old basis. But the miners having seen the basis thrown over once the general strike was called off were naturally suspicious, and it will, I fear, be a long job. The suffering in the mining districts is intense and I cannot find words to tell you what I feel about their powers of endurance. They have five and ten shillings a week strike pay, and they just set their teeth and bear it. In an ultimate sense, they are unbeatable people; for, as I told the Prime Minister yesterday, even if they lose this fight, they will strike again as soon as the tide of trade turns. They are Cromwell’s Ironsides, and they do not know what it is to be beaten.
As you can imagine, I have done no reading during these days; only since Wednesday, indeed, has life been normal again. We had a good two days in the country with the Webbs, after the strike was over; and last night Mcllwain came in and we had a grand book talk, in which I had that endless satisfaction which comes from seeing a man with a fine library envy you your own treasures. . . .
Our united love,
Ever affectionately yours,

Washington, D.C., June 4, 1926
MY DEAR LASKI: An absorbingly interesting letter from you gives me the only light I have on the recent great affairs except an article by Keynes, no doubt the one you refer to. I received a letter from one of a different mode of thought speaking contemptuously of MacDonald, but I don’t know why. I have no comments except my already expressed general impression that England as a whole appeared to great advantage. I have nothing to tell. I am in the details of approaching departure — on Monday we adjourn. There were 29 certioraris to be examined this week, of course many opinions coming in at the last minute — one dissent by me, concurred in only by Brandeis, though I think it pretty plain. One dissent from me by McReynolds, solus, concluding that the argument sustained by him “cannot be vaporized by gestures of impatience and a choleric ‘obviously’” which makes me smile, the more that I don’t think it hits or is aimed at anything in my opinion but rather in my attitude at the last conference — which I am afraid was not as respectful as it should have been. Poor McReynolds is, I think, a man of feeling and of more secret kindliness than he would get the credit for. But as is so common with Southerners, his own personality governs him without much thought of others when an impulse comes, and I think without sufficient regard for the proprieties of the Court. I don’t mind the above a bit so far as I am concerned, but I think it improper in an opinion. Formerly, according to my recollection, he was really insolent to Brandeis, although now there is at least a modus vivendi. When I was in the hospital he wrote a charming letter to me, which I shall not soon forget. . . .
Aff’ly yours,

16 Warwick Gardens, 30.V.26
MY DEAR JUSTICE: A delight of a letter from you is a landmark in these grim days. The miners are still out, and industry, as a result, is inflicted with a kind of creeping paralysis. We have won a remarkable bye-election in London, in which a government majority of two thousand was transformed into a labour majority of four thousand. It has given the government a fright, and we cherish a hope that it will persuade Baldwin to act, instead of standing idly by, doing nothing. It is all very well for him to protest that he loves the good and the beautiful, but that doesn’t butter any parsnips. I gather that the nigger in the woodpile is the good Winston, who is never happy unless there is a fight. The other big event of the week is the new quarrel between Asquith and Lloyd George.2 I never thought I should like to sympathise with the latter, but here I think that Asquith has made a profound mistake by trying to set up standards of party orthodoxy to which no man can possibly be asked to conform. I don’t know if you saw the correspondence? I don’t suppose that since the Russell-Palmerston row over Louis Napoleon, one distinguished statesman has ever so written to another. It doesn’t seem possible that they should ever collaborate again; and it means, I should imagine, the definite disappearance of liberalism as a force in party affairs. It is a tragic ending for Asquith’s career, but he has proved so utterly incapable of adjusting himself to the demands of a new age that the collapse was inevitable. Yet I am enough of a traditionalist to see with regret the end of power which goes back directly to 1832 and the great epoch of reform, and, indirectly to the Revolution of 1688. The funerals of historical entities are melancholy events. . . .
I hope that my articles in the Michigan and Harvard Law Reviews will have come safely to you. I think you will agree with them in general, for they are really humble exercises in discipleship. Cortainly the Harvard one is no more than the application to English conditions of Noble State Bank v. Haskell. . . .
Ever affectionately yours,

Washington, D.C.,June 6, 1926
MY DEAR LASKI: This is an extra, slipped in between two storms, to say that I have read your two articles in the Michigan Law Review and Harvard Law Review respectively, and think them both admirable. Of course I don’t know the H. of L. decisions except by your report, but the attitude and general principle that you show has my sympathy and assent. One slight qualification. The political appointments here that I best recall have been good. I think Taft is all the better Chief Justice for having been President. Story, Taney and Chase were all good — and I might add one or two more. I don’t know many as political appointments but I am ignorant. Also I think that Presidents, if there is a large preponderance of their own party on the bench try to get one of the [other] side — but it is not always easy. . . .
Affectionately yours,

16 Warwick Gardens,19.VI.26
MY DEAR JUSTICE: A delight ful note from you came yesterday. I am glad those papers of mine in the Harvard and Michigan Reviews won your approval. In general I don’t myself mind an occasional political appointment; e.g. I am well content to believe that Taft (I hope he is better) is a good appointment. But one also has to remember the political judges at the time of the Dred Scott case and their disgraceful correspondence anent it with the executive power; and the habits of men like Ellenborough, Eldon and Kenyon give one furiously to think. A knowledge of affairs is, of course, invaluable, but one ought not to pay too heavy a price for it.
This has been a really peaceful week. The only engagement I have had was a party at the Russian embassy, where I had some good talk with one or two old friends. A reception there is a very amusing thing to see. The hauteur of a normal diplomatic affair is entirely absent. One sees many who would not appear in the entourage of the older embassies and many who are always at the latter never appear there. Our Foreign office always scrupulously sends a junior clerk, but the mighty most carefully absent themselves. The person there who interested me most was a Russian jurist with an unpronounceable name. He talked fluently eleven languages. The people I respect on the continent like Ehrlich and Duguit he recited on with great insight and commonsense. And he told me much that was illuminating and helpful about the working of the present legal system in Russia. It seems, if I followed him, to be a combination of executive justice and justice without law. In all political cases the problem rests entirely with the court, which means that, especially in matters like treason, the accused has very little chance. In smaller cases, the jury acts much more like a jury in medieval England in that it reproduces the atmosphere of trying a neighbour from personal knowledge. He himself was, I gathered, very opposed to the first, and well satisfied with the second. He told me that the new Russia has produced a remarkable literature about these things; but I had to take this for granted as it is not even translated into German. . . .
I had a pleasant adventure in a café yesterday. I was having some morning coffee with my friend Siegfried Sassoon and we were having a heated argument about some modern men of letters. An old boy with a cloak, velvet jacket, flowing tie, and all the other appurtenances of the literary movement of the nineties sat near, listening with all his ears. Presently he came over, and in a booming voice asked to take part. We bowed and he made a long speech ending, “Sirs, I have not had such a happy hour since I first came here with Aubrey Beardsley, thirty years ago.” The waiter told us he was an old journalist of the Wilde-Beardsley set who still was faithful to his haunt and, I dare say, peopled it still with the wan ghosts of memories. . . .
It is cold and wet, and the coal lock-out hangs over us like a dread spectre. Mr. Baldwin’s new plans3 proclaim him a typical Pecksniff, who has given way to all the worst influences in the cabinet. I am afraid peace is far away. . . .
Ever affectionately yours,

  1. Since mid-April the crisis in negotiations between the miners, the employers, and the Government had developed with mounting intensity. Since April 30 there had been a total stoppage in the production of coal and on May 1 the Trades Union Congress announced that a general strike would begin on May 3. Mr. Baldwin, and even more vigorously, Mr. Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer, treated the action of the Trades Union Congress as a lawless, revolutionary (fort, to upset the constitutional system. The Government, when the general strike took effect, stood by the proposition that it would not participate in negotiations concerning the shutdown of the mines while the general strike continued. On May 12 the general strike came formally to an end on the understanding that negotiations with respect to the coal dispute would be reopened forthwith. Those negotiations, however, fruitlessly dragged on, the miners stanchly refusing to accede to the employers’ demand, supported by the Government, that wage reductions and longer hours were essential.
  2. On May 20, Lord Oxford, supported by other leaders of the Liberal Party, had written a letter to Lloyd George severely reprimanding him for his defection from party policy in the matter of the general strike. The letter led to an acrimonious dispute between the principals and their supporters and finally in midJune the controversy sputtered out with Lloyd George the clear winner.
  3. On June 15. Baldwin had announced the purpose of the government to take action to lengthen the working day in the coal mines. The coal stoppage continued throughout the summer, and it was not until November that the miners finally returned to work, on terms far less favorable than those which had been offered to them in April.