Wednesday 11 November 2009

Obituary: Chris Harman 1942–2009

by Alex Callinicos from Chris Harman, editor of International Socialism and before that for many years editor of Socialist Worker, died suddenly of a heart attack in Cairo on the night of 6-7 November, on the eve of his 67th birthday. Chris was the outstanding Marxist to emerge in Britain from the great political radicalisation of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He made fundamental intellectual contributions in an astonishing range of subjects. But, true to the tradition of Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, Luxemburg and Gramsci, he was a professional revolutionary who devoted his life to building the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Born in 1942, Chris joined the Socialist Review Group – predecessor to the International Socialists (IS), which became the SWP – as a schoolboy in Watford. After studying at Leeds University in 1962-5, he went on to pursue doctoral research at the London School of Economics (LSE). In the second half of the 1960s the LSE was the storm centre of the student movement in Britain. Chris became a leading LSE activist, and abandoned his academic career. For the rest of his life, he worked full-time for IS, initially as editor of International Socialism and journalist on Socialist Worker. Chris edited Socialist Worker in 1975-77 and then again between 1982 and 2004. Finally he returned to edit International Socialism for a last, very productive stint. Tens of thousands of young people made the same kind of choices as Chris did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But far fewer stuck with them after the tide of revolt began to recede in the mid-1970s. Chris not only stuck, but, from his early 20s onwards, his writings developed revolutionary Marxism as a guide through the complexities and obscurities of the final decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. Tony Cliff, the founder of the IS tradition, provided Chris with his theoretical starting point. Cliff’s analysis of the Soviet Union and the other “socialist” countries as bureaucratic state capitalism made it possible to continue revolutionary Marxism as a living tradition. Only on this basis, Cliff demonstrated, could Marx’s conception of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class continue to have meaning. Building on Cliff’s achievement, Chris greatly extended the range and depth of Marxist theory in many different areas. On all, he produced work of the highest quality, based on in-depth research and on rigorous and original analysis. What follows is the most inadequate summary. In the first place, Chris developed Cliff’s analysis of Stalinism. His first book, Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe (1974, republished as Class Struggles in Eastern Europe), explored the unstable and conflict-ridden history of the state capitalist regimes after 1945. Even before that Chris had exposed the dynamics through which attempts to reform the Stalinist regimes from above could open them up to revolutionary overthrow from below. It was this logic that eventually brought Stalinism down 20 years ago. Chris foreshadowed this outcome in “Poland: Crisis of State Capitalism” (1976-77). Here he analysed how the so-called “socialist” countries were being integrated into the global capitalist rhythms of trade and debt. He captured the fall itself as a “move sideways” from state to private capitalism in “The Storm Breaks” (1990). Chris’s skills as a historian were first fully revealed in the compelling narratives of workers’ revolts in Bureaucracy and Revolution. He went on to study the German Revolution of 1918-23 (The Lost Revolution, 1982), and then the upturn of the late 1960s and early 1970s (The Fire Last Time, 1988). Chris also wrote important essays on the Marxist theory of history. But his culminating achievement as a historian came in his magisterial People’s History of the World (1999), a great popular success especially after it was republished recently by Verso. One of the book’s strengths lay in the understanding it showed of so-called “primitive” societies. Chris began his detailed studies of the anthropological research into these societies during the intense debates about women’s liberation in the late 1970s. For him they demonstrated that men and women could live in equality once class exploitation was finally overthrown. This typified Chris’s intellectual approach. He was interested in particular problems usually not for their own sake but in order to address political arguments. Thus The Prophet and the Proletariat (1994) was a pioneering Marxist study of political Islam that helped to arm the SWP for the debates and struggles after 9/11. Some of Chris’s most important writings were directly devoted to problems of revolutionary strategy and tactics. An outstanding early essay, “Party and Class” (1968), originated as an internal document seeking to persuade the radicalised students who had rallied to IS of the necessity of building a Leninist vanguard party. In the mid-1970s, a moment of growing confusion on the European far left, Chris made several important interventions, notably during the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-5 and against the attempt to transform Antonio Gramsci into a theorist of reformism. The same preoccupation with offering political direction informed one last – and central – area of Chris’s writings: the analysis of capitalism itself. His deep and original understanding of Marxist political economy was already on display in a brilliant contribution to a debate in the late 1960s with Ernest Mandel, the leader of the Fourth International. The articles collected together as Explaining the Crisis (1983) built on the earlier work of Mike Kidron. Kidron had shown how very high levels of arms expenditure had temporarily stabilised capitalism after the Second World War. Chris now extended this analysis to explain the return of major crises to the system from the late 1960s onwards. At a time when Marxist economics was in disarray in the academy, he demonstrated the continuing relevance of Marx’s attempt to understand the laws of motion of capitalism. Chris continued to write about political economy in later decades, but it was in his last years that he returned to the subject in depth. In growing dialogue with other leading Marxist economists, he worked on Zombie Capitalism. Published earlier this year, this superb study places the present crisis in the context of the history and dynamics of capitalism as a whole. A fraction of this achievement would have made many an academic career. But Chris produced all this, and much more, not amid the easy comfort and prestige of the academy, but as an underpaid full-time worker for the SWP. His biggest single party role was as editor of Socialist Worker after he took it over again in the early 1980s, a time of great disorientation for the left. Chris steered the paper through the agonies of Thatcherism – above all, the great drama of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike – and the doldrums of the 1990s, to the renewed radicalisation offered by the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements in the past decade. Chris concealed his immense abilities and achievements behind a shy exterior. He was completely without pretension of any kind. But he remained a model of revolutionary integrity and dedication. He punctured the self-congratulatory nostalgia of a recent meeting to commemorate the LSE struggles of the 1960s by announcing that becoming a pensioner left him more time as an activist. It is one of the cruelties of life that Chris has been robbed of the happy and productive old age he was entitled to expect. He will live on in his writings and in the political legacy he has left in the SWP and its sister organisations in the International Socialist Tendency. But this doesn’t diminish the terrible loss his death represents – above all for his partner Talat and his children Seth and Sinead, but also for the much wider circle whom he touched. Personally, I have lost my comrade, friend, and teacher of more than 35 years. This is a moment to mourn and to grieve, before – as Chris would expect – we resume the struggle.

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