Chris Harman (1942-2009)
This obituary, co written with my friend Andy Durgan, was originally published in Revolutionary History, Volume 10, Number 2, The Left in Iran 1905-!940.
The unexpected death of Chris Harman on 7 November 2009 in Cairo, at the age of 66, was a serious loss to whole international workers and socialist movement. Exactly how one estimates the seriousness of this loss depends, like everything else, on one’s politics but even for those socialists with little sympathy for Chris’s particular brand of Trotskyism and Revolutionary Marxism, there remain a number of undeniable facts which make him a major figure on the left.
First there is the fact that from his radicalisation at the age of 16 in Watford he remained an unwavering revolutionary socialist until the day he died, with his political boots on, while speaking at the Socialist Days conference in Cairo. This in itself makes him a member of quite a select band. When we also consider that for most of these fifty years he served as part of the central leadership of one of Britain and Europe’s largest and most active far left organisations (the IS/SWP) including being at various times editor of its paper, Socialist Worker (1974 and 1981- 2005), its monthly magazine, Socialist Review (1979-81) and its theoretical journal, International Socialism, (1970-74 and 2006-2009) and add that throughout this time he was a hugely prolific writer, this places him in even more restricted and elevated company.(Mandel, Cliff ,Bensaid etc)
For those, like the authors of this obituary, who shared the essentials of his ideas (adherence to the classical Marxist tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky and the self emancipation of the working class, the basic theory of capitalist crisis drawn from capital i.e. the falling rate of profit, and the state capitalist analysis of Russia and the other Stalinist states) Chris Harman’s contribution was simply unparalleled, at least in recent years, and his death deprives us of the foremost Marxist theoretician of the early 21st century.
An obituary of Chris Harman has to deal with three things: his personality, his practical revolutionary activity and his intellectual/theoretical contribution to the movement. We shall begin with his practical activity, not because this was the sphere in which Chris achieved most but because it was absolutely central to his life and a key factor in determining his theoretical orientation. For Chris Marxist theory was always a means of serving the struggle for socialism, not an end itself. ‘Not a dogma, but a guide to action’ as Engels used to say.
Chris’ political activity began while he was at school in Watford, somewhere around 1959, and continued at University in Leeds where, in 1961, he joined the Socialist Review group (soon to become the International Socialists). In 1964 he went to do a PhD at the LSE, under Ralph Miliband, but he abandoned his thesis to dedicate himself to fulltime political activity. And it was there that Chris’ activism went through its most exciting phase. Along with Tony Cliff (who also put in many hours at the LSE) he built a Socialist Society and an IS branch of exceptional quality. The young revolutionaries grouped round Harman at this time included Richard Kuper (later founder of Pluto Press), Andreas Nagliatti (later IS industrial organiser and CC member), Steve Jeffries (later SWP industrial organiser and CC member), Joan Smith, John Rose (writer on Zionism and still SWP), Martin Tompkinson, Sabby Sagall (anti Zionist campaigner and still SWP), and Martin Shaw (later Sociology professor). Together they were the driving force behind the LSE sit-in of 1967, the seminal event which launched the British student movement of the late sixties and seventies. Chris also threw himself into the other key campaign of the late sixties, the movement against the Vietnam War, and became a leading figure in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, getting himself arrested on demos on several occasions and helping to plan the two great VSC demos of 1968. A brilliant image of Chris Harman’s role in the movement at that time has been left by David Widgery in his anthology The Left in Britain 1956-68.
“We have to be absolutely clear about this,” said Chris Harman from the platform of the LSE Old Theatre, as he always said when starting a speech. A groan went round the theatre and Harman brandished his moped crash helmet. “We must be quite clear what’s happening. 1968 is a year of international revolution no less than 1793, 1830, 1848, 1917 and 1936. We are experiencing the re-birth of the international Marxist movement after over 30 years of defeat and hibernation.” The audience of prematurely hard-bitten student lefties gathered to inaugurate the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation looked impressed. Harman, although fairly widely disliked, was also widely respected as a Marxist intransigent. When he started evoking the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, the Barcelona uprising, he meant it. Militants were to be seen conferring about what did actually happen in 1830.” [ Widgery, 1976, p341.]
From the seventies onwards Chris’s practical activity was mediated through his role in the leadership of the SWP. His talents were such that the party was always going to use him primarily as a writer, editor and speaker, rather than as an organizer or street campaigner, but the link to practice was never lost sight of. Never, for a moment, did he stop taking seriously the practical problems of working class struggle, of party building and socialist struggle in all its many forms. Moreover, right up until his death he could always be seen at all the movement’s significant demos and rallies, for example the recent Unite Against Fascism demonstration at the BBC against the appearance of Nick Griffin on Question Time.
There were certain features of Chris’s personality, which militated against him ever playing the individual leader role in the SWP or any other political formation. First his relative lack of oratorical skills – he worked on this and improved considerably over the years but he never had the speaking ability of a Cliff, Hallas or Foot. Second his shyness and lack of people skills - basically he wasn’t very keen on talking to people whom he didn’t know well. Third, and clearly these characteristics were linked, his own disinclination actually to fight for himself as a leader. Harman’s unwillingness to engage in internal party struggle, either for himself or, often, for tactical or strategic positions he held, sometimes frustrated his strongest supporters inside the SWP. However the upside of this weakness, the other side of the same coin, was that Chris was completely free of the arrogance, personal ambition and elitism, even gangsterism that has sometimes been associated with certain Trotskyist leaders (Gerry Healy of the WRP being the extreme, but not the only, example). Never for one moment did you think Chris was in the movement for anything other than the class, the cause and the ideas.
Nor is the shy, somewhat self-effacing Harman by any means the whole story. For many years, doubtless assisted by his youthful good looks (which he retained in middle age) he was something of a player, until, over the last twenty years, settling into a stable and clearly very happy relationship with his partner, Talat Ahmed. Also with those he did know well and with whom he felt relaxed, and especially with the aid of a few pints, he could be great company.
However all of this pales into insignificance when compared to the quantity and quality of his theoretical contribution. Obviously quality is much more important than quantity – one Theses on Feuerbach or State and Revolution is worth thousands of academic tomes and popularizing pamphlets – nevertheless the sheer volume of Harman’s oeuvre is extraordinary. The contents section alone of his entry on Marxists Internet Archive runs to 17 pages - that’s over 3800 words listing more than 450 texts. This contrasts with the entry for Ted Grant (who began writing in 1938!) – 12 pages, 2200 words and about 250 texts; Karl Kautsky – 5 pages, 660 words and less than 100 texts; and Ernest Mandel – 6 pages, 1300 and about 200 texts. Of course the comparison is in no way exact or scientific but it does give an idea of just how prolific Harman was.
Nor is there any lack of quality. There were six major books. First, Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe (1974) [later Class Struggles in Eastern Europe] This took the state capitalist analysis of Russia as developed by Tony Cliff and applied it to the whole of Eastern Europe, dealing first with the establishment of the Stalinist regimes in the region and then with their gradual disintegration. The central insight on which this book was based was that the Eastern European societies, like all other fundamentally capitalist economies, were subject to the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, but it also contained a superb account of the Hungarian Revolution.
Next came: The Lost Revolution (1982) - a history of one of the decisive events of the 20th century, the German Revolution of 1918-23. In Lessons of October Trotsky claimed that the leadership of the KPD let slip a golden revolutionary opportunity in the summer and autumn of 1923. Harman’s book put flesh on the bones of this claim and in so doing reinforced the argument for the necessity of building a revolutionary party and forging a revolutionary leadership in advance of the decisive revolutionary battles. As prelude to this he traced and explained the progressive reformist degeneration and renegacy of the SPD. Harman believed that if the German Revolution had triumphed in 1923 humanity would have been spared the horrors of both Stalinism and Nazism and probably now be living in a socialist world.
Explaining the Crisis(1982) was Harman’s response to the return of international economic crisis to the world economy in the 70s and early 80s, after the long post war boom. Intellectually the book was based on the explanation of the boom by means of the theory of the permanent arms economy, particularly as developed by Mike Kidron, integrated with the theory of the declining rate of profit drawn from Capital Vol. 3. Boiled down to its essentials the argument was that massive arms spending during the Cold War offset the rising organic composition of capital and therefore the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, thus permitting the prolonged and sustained expansion of the world system from the 40s to the late 60s; however from the late 60s on the arms economy ceased to be able to play this stabilising role because the US was forced to reduce its military spending (in relative terms) due to increased competition from Germany and Japan who had grown rapidly under the umbrella of global stability provided by the arms economy for which they themselves had not had to pay. Consequently the underlying tendency to crisis in the system was reasserting itself. The perspective was not instant catastrophe but permanent and growing instability in the global economy. The book was also notable for its powerful defence of the declining rate of profit theory against all its numerous critics.
1988 saw the appearance of The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After. This is an analysis of the struggles that shaped Harman’s own early development as a revolutionary, but it is a completely impersonal one: unlike, say, Tariq Ali’s Street Fighting Years, the last thing it focuses on is his own, not inconsiderable, role in the events it describes. What it showed was: 1) that the explosion of 68 was prepared by deep social changes during the post war boom, especially urbanisation, proletarianisation and expansion of education, which from the Deep South to Northern Ireland, undermined the old rigid social and political order; 2) that the late sixties were characterised not just, as the media would have it, by student and youth revolt, important as they were, but by major working class struggles globally; 3) that after six years of upheaval from Saltley Gates to Santiago, Detroit to Lisbon, the system, with the aid of Social Democracy and the trade union leaders internationally was able to tame the class and restabilise itself; 4) that revolutionaries need to learn the lessons of this period to ensure that when the fire comes next time, we win. Of the many books on 68 this is not always the most exciting, but it is by some distance the best analysis.
A People’s History of the World (1999) produced for the millennium, is Chris’s masterwork, the culmination and compression of forty years research and engagement. Even to have attempted this project required either immense arrogance or immense knowledge, and Chris was not arrogant. To have pulled it off, to have condensed the entire history of humanity into 600 odd pages – without major distortion and without ridiculous oversimplification – required deep understanding as well as deep knowledge. In the first place it needed a sure grasp of the Marxist method, historical materialism, in the second an ability to apply that method to living history i.e. to social forces in conflict.
A People’s History brings together three on-going aspects of Harman’s thought: a fascination with archaeology and the origins of human society (partly deriving from debates about the roots of women’s oppression); a particular concern with the transition from feudalism to capitalism (partly motivated by a desire to counter the arguments of both right wing historical revisionism and the so-called ‘political marxism’ of Robert Brenner); an intense engagement with the class struggles and revolutions of the twentieth century. The result is a superbly coherent whole which avoids the usual pitfall of eurocentrism, offers an original and thoroughly international account of the emergence of capitalism, and shows how the whole of history of class society is culminating in a choice between socialism and barbarism. This book will serve the whole international socialist movement as a vital resource and educational tool for decades to come.
Finally, in 2009, there was Zombie Capitalism: the global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx. This built on the analysis laid down in Explaining the Crisis and applied it to the recent credit crunch and consequent global recession. With considerable justice, Chris saw this crisis as a vindication of his views; for over a decade he had been rejecting claims, either from apologists for capitalism or others on the left, that capitalism had entered a new phase of sustained expansion in any way comparable to that of the fifties, or had overcome any of its fundamental contradictions. Now he insisted that the crisis was not just a matter of greedy bankers, greedy though they were, nor of inadequate regulation, nor of the financial sector alone; rather it was a deep crisis of the whole capitalist system, rooted, as before, in the declining rate of profit and exacerbated by the concentration of capital which had produced giant firms [such as AIG] which were too large to be allowed to go under, thus preventing the crisis from playing its traditional role of destroying sufficient capital to restore the rate of profit.
At the same time he resisted the temptation (held out to him by some in the SWP) to announce imminent catastrophe and the final crisis. Instead he insisted that the specific details of the future were unpredictable and that, as ever, the course of the future would depend on the outcome of the class struggle. It should also be said that Zombie Capitalism is a masterful work, superbly crafted; the opening section on value and use value is, perhaps, the best exposition of these vital concepts since Marx, and could only have been written by someone with a profound grasp of Marxist theory and the nature of modern capitalism.
The books rest on the foundation, and sometimes grow directly out, of the ceaseless flow of major articles which Chris wrote for International Socialism Journal over forty years. Looking back, many of these are especially memorable because they met exactly the political/theoretical needs of a particular conjuncture and thus shaped our political practice. Here are some examples:
Russia: How the Revolution was Lost (1967). Written for the fiftieth anniversary of the revolution, this provided (for those who did not simply parrot Trotsky’s account in the Revolution Betrayed) the best available Marxist explanation, at the time, of the degeneration of the revolution and the rise of Stalinism – in the struggles of 68 it was hugely useful.
Party and Class (1969). The May Events and other struggles of 68 inevitably raised the question of the party at a time when both Trot sects mouthing What is To Be Done? and libertarian spontaneists were proliferating. Harman’s article with its understanding of Gramsci as well as Lenin, raised the debate to a whole new level, and remains a crucial reference point today.
The Stalinist States (1970). This relatively short perspectives article opened the way to all Chris’s later work on Russia and Eastern Europe, and set out with extraordinary prescience their eventual demise.
The Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left (1979). The upturn of the late sixties/ early seventies had produced an array of promising looking revolutionary organisations, some Trotskyist, others semi-Maoist, especially in Italy. But when the level of struggle receded many of these groups proved unable to adapt and fell apart. Chris’s article was hugely important alerting us to, and diagnosing the causes of, this phenomenon.
Women’s Liberation and Revolutionary Socialism (1984). The rise of the women’s liberation movement in the seventies meant that a whole generation of socialists had to address, mostly for the first time, an issue that was politically and personally challenging. This produced many heated debates and much confusion. Chris’s response in this article remains one of the most comprehensive and lucid statements of the Marxist position on women’s emancipation.
Glasnost: Before the Storm (with Andy Zebrowski) (1988) and The Storm Breaks (1990) were Harman’s responses to Gorbachev and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Contrary to almost everyone on the left at the time (where illusions in Gorbachev were overwhelming) these brilliant articles were vindicated by events and played a crucial role in steering the whole international tendency through the collapse of Communism, without succumbing to demoralisation.
The Prophet and the Proletariat (1994). Of all his single articles this was perhaps the most vital, the most indispensable. The left internationally was just starting to confront the problem of Islamic Fundamentalism, or Islamism, as it is better described as wholly progressive. Harman’s meticulous analysis, proceeding from Marx’s theory of religion and a materialist account of developments in the Muslim world, showed the complex, contradictory and diverse nature of this phenomenon and charted a route between the two false alternatives – Islamism as fascist or Islamism as wholly progressive – which were so damaging to many of the left, east and west, when faced with 9/11 and ‘the war on terror’.
However, these are only the drastically edited highlights of an immense body of work. Like Trotsky Chris preferred the analysis of social relations to the analysis of texts, nevertheless there was also Harman the philosopher, decisively intervening in the debate about Althusser in Philosophy and Revolution (1983) and on historical materialism in Base and Superstructure (1986) and defending Gramsci against academic and reformist distortion in Gramsci versus Eurocommunism (1977). Then there was Harman the anthropologist refuting nonsense about a mythical women’s sex strike; Harman the writer of popular educational pamphlets such as How Marxism Works (1979) and Economics of the Madhouse (1995) and Harman the author of, literally uncountable, journalist articles, signed and unsigned, in Socialist Worker and Socialist Review. In all these Harmans one thing remained constant – the articulation of a revolutionary Marxist outlook on the world in the simplest clearest language that would not oversimplify the issue at hand.
To describe Harman as polymathic is almost an understatement. It is easier to list the subjects he was not expert in than those he was – sport, visual art and popular culture come to mind. One obvious feature of Chris’s output was the way it transcended all academic boundaries, and another was its precociousness: at twenty two he was already reviewing books for IS Journal (including Consciencism by Nkrumah, Alienation and Freedom by Blauner and The Problem of Method by Sartre, no less) and at twenty seven he was more than holding his own in polemic with Mandel (The Inconsistencies of Ernest Mandel, 1969). Sometimes there was a conservative side, in the Marxist sense, to Chris in that his theory could be like a giant ocean liner whose course was slow to alter – for example he was much slower than Tony Cliff to grasp the fact and crucial significance of the down turn in workers’ struggle in the second half of the seventies, but his thinking never ossified and at the end of his life he was clearly starting to integrate the huge new issue of climate change into his economic analysis. That Chris was a complete internationalist in principle goes almost without saying, but he was also phenomenally international in his interests. He had a ‘special’ interest in the USA, and a ‘special’ interest in Mexico, and in Latin America, and in Ireland, and in Spain,and in Portugal and in Greece, and in the Middle East, and in India, and in China, and in Korea and so on ad infinitum. Most of these places he had visited and written about, mostly as part of his work for the International Socialist Tendency. This is one of the reasons why, on his death, there was such an array of powerful tributes from all over the globe.
In the course of this decade the SWP has experienced the death of the four individuals who did most to shape it as a party – Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas, Paul Foot and Chris Harman. Tony Cliff was the founder, and by far the strongest political leader – his funeral was, fittingly, the best attended by the party membership. Duncan Hallas was probably the least disliked by anyone and the most loved by the older core. Paul Foot was the best known outside the party and the most influential on the wider left. His funeral probably had the largest and certainly the broadest turnout. At Chris Harman’s funeral, however, there were the most personally grief stricken; not just family members but comrades who looked as if they had lost a family member. This was partly because his death was such a surprise but mainly because there was a whole generation of us who had grown to political maturity working alongside Chris. We were all Cliff’s children, but Chris was our elder brother. And to have had such a brother, such a comrade, was an awesome privilege.
John Molyneux and Andy Durgan