Monday, November 30, 2009

Obituary for Chris Harman

Chris Harman (1942-2009)

Chris Harman was my comrade for forty one years.From 1983 to 1997 I wrote a weekly column for Socialist Worker of which he was then the Editor. Also since the early eighties I served with Chris on the Editorial Board of International Socialism Journal, which in recent years he has edited. To say that his death is a dreadful loss is an understatement. What follows is a slightly longer i.e. uncut version of the obituary that appeared in The Independent on 19 November.

Chris Harman, editor of International Socialism Journal and, before that, of Socialist Worker, and leading figure in the Socialist Workers Party for more than four decades, died last week in Cairo of a heart attack. This was all the more shocking because it was so unexpected. His death came as a real bolt from the blue.

Chris radicalised while still at school, and was an active socialist even before he went to Leeds University in 1962. By the time he arrived to do a PhD at the LSE in 1965
he was already a force on the left and writing for International Socialism. At the LSE he played a key role in the Socialist Society which, in turn, led the LSE sit ins that helped trigger the whole British student movement of that time.

Chris’s commitment to political activity never weakened. Over the years he could be seen at countless meetings, rallies and demos and he died only hours after speaking at a conference of Egyptian socialist activists. There is no doubt that his main contribution to the socialist cause he served all his life was as a writer and theorist, but like Marx he thought ‘Philosophers have interpreted the world, the point is to change it’ and everything he wrote was part of the project of building a revolutionary workers organisation, the SWP, capable of actually taking on capitalism.

As his long editorship of Socialist Worker (1982- 2004) showed, Chris was always a party man fiercely loyal to the SWP, but his intellectual stature was such that he always had an influence beyond party ranks. Everyone on the left who was serious about the Marxist analysis of the contemporary world, had to take Harman seriously. At the time of his death he was, in my opinion, the foremost Marxist theorist in the world.

To justify that claim here is a brief summary of his most important intellectual contributions.

First, his ongoing analysis of Russia and Eastern Europe. He adopted from Tony Cliff, the view that these societies were not socialist but state capitalist and took over, also, the task of applying this analysis to the Stalinist regimes in the period of their decline. In 1967 he wrote ‘Russia: How the Revolution was Lost’, explaining the rise of Stalin in Marxist terms, and in 1970 produced the exceptionally prescient ‘Prospects for the Seventies: the Stalinist States’ which accurately diagnosed their underlying economic weakness and foresaw their fall. This was followed by Class Struggles in Eastern Europe, on workers’ revolts against Stalinism and then by a series of brilliant articles analysing Gorbachev, Glasnost and Perestroika, as they happened, which had the dividend of steering the SWP and its international partners through the rocky waters of 1989-91 that disoriented and demoralised so many on the left.

Then there were three major works of history. The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918- 23 (1982) dealt with one of the most important but lesser known episodes of modern history: the five years after the First World War when Germany was far closer to socialism than to fascism, and when, but for a loss of nerve by its leaders, German Communism might have taken power in a revolution that would have forestalled both Hitler and Stalin.. The Fire Last Time – 1968 and after (1988) was a masterly analysis of all those struggles which had shaped Chris in his youth – the US black revolt, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the student revolt, May 68, the invasion of Czechoslovakia and so on. Of the many books written on that time this is by far the best because as well as capturing the period’s spirit of rebellion it also offered a sustained explanation of it.

However, A People’s History of the World (1999) is in a league of its own. To have condensed the history of humanity into seven hundred pages without dumbing down is feat enough but the book’s centrepiece is an original analysis of the rise of capitalism, which builds on the insights of previous historians, to present the first fully international account and theory of the system’s historical genesis. The People’s History was written for the millennium but will far outlive the moment of its production, providing a vital work of reference for socialist activists everywhere.

Most important of all has been was Chris’s relentless critique of the world capitalist economy. He sustained this at every level from the popular booklet (The Economics of the Madhouse) to the superb synthesis of theory and evidence that characterised his main economic works, Explaining the Crisis (1984) and Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx (2009). Whenever capitalism enjoys a period of prosperity its supporters claim it will last forever and that the spectre of crisis has been exorcised. Chris never countenanced this. Basing himself on the theory of the declining rate of profit in Capital Vol 3, which he defended against all comers, he always insisted that sooner or later boom would turn to slump, and could justly claim that the sudden eruption in 2008 of the worst crisis since the thirties vindicated his arguments. Moreover in recent years he more and more integrated into his economic analysis the threat posed by climate change and how this would sharpen the struggles engendered by the crisis.

These major interventions were accompanied by a ceaseless stream of articles on an array of topics ranging from philosophy to riots. Frequently these would prove to be of central strategic importance. Such was The Prophet and the Proletariat’ (1994) which was crucial in pioneering an analysis of political Islam, even before 9/11, and thus preparing socialists to combat war and Islamophobia.

To write of Chris the private person is less easy because of his deep shyness but sometimes, in the company of friends and after a few pints the reserve would slip, and it should be said he was a kind and decent man who never gave a thought to personal advancement.

At a personal level his partner Talat, and children Seth and Sinead will feel his loss most acutely. Politically it will be shared by revolutionary socialists and Marxists across the world. Nevertheless we retain the example of his unswerving commitment and his rich theoretical legacy and that we can celebrate.

John Molyneux


Harmer said...

Never met Chris and, as an anarcho-syndicalist, disagreed with much of his politics. But no political education would be complete without reading what he wrote, works of genuine intellectual stature and passion. His death was a shock and truly a loss to us.

Unknown said...

I'm sorry to say this, but I also disagree with much of his politics. Dealing with dozens or even hundreds essays on a regular basis, I wouldn't choose this topic as my "favorite".