by Andy Wilson
Chris Harman, revolutionary socialist author and activist and a long-time member of the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party, died of a heart attack on Saturday night while speaking at the Socialist Days conference in Cairo.
From a working class background, Chris joined the Socialist Review Group (forerunner of the International Socialists and the SWP) in the early 60s while a student at Leeds University. He became one of the leading activists in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign while at the London School of Economics, although he eventually abandoned his studies to become a full-time worker for the IS/SWP. Chris remained a constant among the leadership there until the day of his death.
The IS that Chris joined was distinguished from the mass of the extra-parliamentary left by its analysis of the Stalinist regimes as simply variant forms of capitalism, managed and run by the state bureaucracy. This theory of ‘State Capitalism’ had precursors but was first fully developed by Tony Cliff, and it allowed the IS group to define a unique position for itself, summed up by its slogan ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism’. Cliff had originally been an orthodox Trotskyist but this definitive break with the idea that Stalinism in some sense defended the gains of the Russian Revolution, combined with demonstrating that the Stalinist countries were still ultimately driven by the rhythms of international capital accumulation, meant that the IS tradition opened itself up to various libertarian currents that gave it the potential to relate far more productively to the upsurge of militancy when it finally arrived in the late 60s and early 70s.
As a Central Committee member Chris remained largely (though not always entirely) loyal to Cliff, siding with him in factional fights from the ‘turn to Democratic Centralism’ and the expulsion of Jim Higgins and the IS Opposition onwards. Chris was the editor of the group’s theoretical journal, the International Socialism Journal, and, for almost 30 years, of Socialist Worker. However it might have appeared from the outside, for a generation of SWP members it was Harman rather than Cliff who was considered as the group’s most important theoretician.
Whatever his contributions to the leadership of the SWP it is likely that he will remembered primarily for a series of books he wrote in support of Marxism generally and IS politics specifically, most of which managed the rare feat of combining detailed original research and analysis with a clear style and an impassioned call to action – every book was written with the intention of winning people to socialist politics in the circumstances of the time.
Whereas Cliff developed the core IS theory of State Capitalism it was Chris who applied the theory most tellingly – in Class Struggles in Eastern Europe: 1945-83, for instance, which detailed the (often hidden) history of the way that the Stalinist system also created working class resistance. Time and again he was key to developing core areas of IS theory, relating it to both the widest questions of history and economics but also to the issues of the day. The Fire the Last Time: 1968 and After was a masterly analysis of the circumstances that gave rise to the upsurge of 1968 and beyond but, more importantly, argued that the same structural flaws in the system persisted and would lead to renewed outbursts of militancy and resistance in future, for which socialists should prepare. Works such as The Summer of 1981: A Post-Riot Analysis and, more recently, The Prophet And The Proletariat: Islamic Fundamentalism, Class and Revolution put contemporary events firmly within the framework of an internationalist, working class revolutionary perspective.
On a personal note, Chris was instrumental in my own expulsion from the SWP some 15 years ago, but in the years since then I never stopped thinking that he was probably the most outstanding Marxist of his generation, and it saddened me to have fallen out with him so thoroughly. Whatever my own disagreements with current SWP practice it always seemed likely that such shortcomings were far more likely to be overcome if Chris was involved in their solution. This thought has occured to me increasingly often of late as the SWP has entered something of a crisis in which it is being forced to reassess its direction and its structures: in conversations with SWP activists the one assumption we have all shared, no matter what our starting point, is that Chris Harman would play an overwhelmingly positive role in any such changes. Among SWP activists he was seen not only as a mercurial intellectual but as someone with whom it was possible to speak frankly and honestly. He was also an innately modest man, to the point of seeming shy and diffident, but he took his responsibility to the IS tradition extremely seriously, never took his senior position for granted and always listened seriously to what the rank and file members of his party had to say.
Along with many others of my generation I learned much of my Marxism from Chris Harman. Anyone who has ever been encouraged and informed by him – whether through his books, his articles in various party papers and journals, or through hearing him speak at meetings and conferences – will be sad at the passing of such a tremendously inspiring figure. He was not only an organic revolutionary intellectual, but a brilliant one, who lived a life dedicated entirely to rebuilding the tradition of ‘socialism from below’. We are much the worse off for his tragic, untimely death.