ANTHONY CROSLAND had been James Callaghan's foreign secretary a mere 10 months when he died of a stroke, at the age of 58, in February 1977. He had served in all Labor cabinets since 1965 (at the departments of economic affairs, education, trade, and the environment). He was the dominant socialist intellectual of his day, the author of two major ideological works, The Future of Socialism (1956) and Socialism Now (1974), the only European foreign secretary acknowledged by Henry Kissinger to rival his own unique powers of cerebration. Since his death, the embattled British Labor Party has conspicuously lacked a philosopher-king.

Crosland's biography has been written by his American-born widow Susan, daughter of Mark Watson, the distinguished Baltimore Sun defense correspondent. On the whole, I suspect, it is not a good idea for wives to erect such monuments to their eminent husbands: there is constant danger of mawkishness, of special pleading, of partiality, even of hero- worship. There are those moments, always uncomfortable for the detached reader, when the biographer herself becomes part of the narrative. Susan Crosland, for instance, will be remembered in Washington as the foreign secretary's wife who fainted and broke her jaw at the queen's bicentennial banquet for President Ford.

Her dominant tone, unsurprisingly, is one of admiration verging on reverence. Otherwise she largely avoids the pitfalls of marital hagiography. Under her mother's maiden name of Barnes, she has long been admired in Britain as the author of stylish, penetrating profiles of public figures in Sunday supplements, and this book is really an extended exercise in the same genre. The combination of his personal and professional lives to which her husband gave her free access--he would tell her of each day's in-fighting over their evening "gossip" session at home--result in an unusually intimate peep into the inner life of a public man. There are moments when the reader is made to feel something of a voyeur, as on the Sunday afternoon when Tony Benn enters the Crosland drawing room in his bicycle clips just as the couple are off to bed. But most such vignettes are skillfully marshaled to illustrate the many and varied facets of her maverick husband's forceful, nonconformist--and, yes, at times arrogant--character.

Tony Crosland was an economist by instinct and a democratic socialist by hard-wrought conviction. Born into the comfortable upper- middle classes, the rebellious son of strict Plymouth Brethren, he was one of those political ideologues who place a supreme value on parliamentary democracy, yet find its workings clumsy and irritating. The patrician manner which resulted could obscure his deeply felt egalitarianism. He never built up a sufficiently strong personal following in either parliament or party-at-large to stand a realistic chance of attaining highest office. And, as with so many such socialist intellectuals, there is something queasily sentimental about his delight, copiously recorded here, in the grass- roots companionships of his constituency, the rugged east coast fishing port of Grimsby.

Crosland did not relish political power for its own sake, but as the only concrete means to abstract ends. His commonplace books, quoted at length, testify to his wish simply to put his beliefs to tangible purpose; at the end of each parliamentary session, he would grade himself on practical achievement. His widow can point to such British institutions as the polytechnics (socialized universities) as his legacy. And, for all her touching cheerleading, there is no doubt he was an unusually honest politician. Impatient with dress clothes and all such protocol, notably of the royal variety--we are treated to a hilarious account of life aboard HMS Britannia, approaching Mayor Rizzo's Philadelphia in gale-force winds--he would be equally dismissive of an ill-prepared or badly argued brief. His civil servants, sounding rather chastened, speak of him with a respect bordering on awe.

The great "love affairs" (his own words) of Crosland's career came at its beginning with Hugh Gaitskell, the great Labor leader also dead before his time, and at the end with Dr. Kissinger, who testifies: "It became a unique relationship between Foreign Ministers, inconceivable unless you have two oddballs like Tony and me: intellectuals interested in problems not just because we were Foreign Ministers. Destiny made me a Republican; I was on the party's liberal side. Tony was an original socialist. We got along, not because we agreed or disagreed, but because we were on the same wavelength." Even this formidable mutual admiration society, however, was to find itself outmaneuvered by Ian Smith.

The other great love of his life, of course, was his biographer. It is no merely convenient cosmetic truth that here was one politician who really did put his family before his career, even volunteering to invent prohibitively high blood pressure if elected party leader (and thus prime minister) after Wilson's resignation in 1976. It was the second marriage for both of them (Susan Crosland was previously married to Patrick Skene Catling) and obviously a poignantly happy one, with the author providing an enviable support system, both domestic and professional. I would rather she had kept her husband's last moments to herself, but she has otherwise done his memory proud.