obituary of chris harman

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.

53 thoughts on “obituary of chris harman

  1. For me the best in Harman is his writings on Portugal and then where he defends Gramsci from the Eurocommunists. At Marxism last year I challenged him on why he had moved so far from these relatively libertarian ideas and the strong criticisms of state capitalist measures, and he seemed embarrassed rather than defiant, which to be honest added to my respect for him. has a good collection of his works –


  2. I also think this is a sad loss for Marxism. I was a member of the SWP for a period in the 1980s and wrote regularly on the USSR and Eastern Europe under the name of Patrick Kane in SW and SR. I admired Harman’s writings before and after leaving that organisation. Particularly his defence of Gramsci, his history of the German Revolution and his many writings on Eastern Europe.
    I do however disagree with Andy’s note that:

    “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’.”

    This is not the case at all, far from it. Cliff went off on his own determined to go his own, often sectarian course. CLR James and especially Raya Dunayevskaya, had done extensive work on this subject before Cliff.
    In 1941, in the Workers Party bulletin, Dunayevskaya published The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Is a Capitalist Society. At the same time CLR James published a separate article, arguing for the same definition. James (party name J.R.Johnson) and Dunayevskaya (Freddie Forest) formed the State-Capitalist tendency more commonly known under the Johnson-Forest tendency label. Cliff built a myth that he was the author of the “original theory of state-capitalism”. The relationship of Cliff to then actually existing State-Capitalist tendency is instructive. Dunayevskaya recalled that by 1943 her theory was known in Europe, Cliff “not only knew of this but refused categorically to acknowledge that anyone internationally could have done original work in Marxist Theory ahead of him”. In 1947 Cliff was coming to the conclusion that Russia was a state-capitalist society:

    “Nevertheless, he refused to vote for my resolution at the Fourth International Conference or to take any stand, until he had “his study” completed. That occurred the next year. And, again, despite references to many sources that would prove his “erudition”, he made not a single reference to my study; much less acknowledge that a study before his had been done on this question. We nearly came to blows when I arrived in London in 1947 and found that his analysis was so fully economist that we really did have little that we agreed on. For example, the theory of State-Capitalism in our tendency was never separated from the new forms of Workers Revolts, in which of necessity the spontaneity of the Masses played a crucial role. His administrative mentality merely treated spontaneity of the Workers as if it were an “Anarchist Aberration”. (Letter to Harry McShane, October 27, 1969.

    Alex Callinicos lies that Cliff, published his “Classic” work in 1948 before Dunayevskaya despite the clear record she published in 1941. Cliff refused to wage a struggle within the Fourth International. Within his own organization when support for the theory of state-capitalism as developed inside the Workers Party was raised, he expelled the adherent Ellis Hillman was expelled for supporting Dunayevkaya and James. At a subsequent conference of all the state-capitalist currents held in Milan Cliff refused to participate.


  3. Well as a long term member of the SWP I recall attending meetings discussing in depth precursors of the theory of state capitalism. Importantly however Cliff’s theory was identical to others, and was developed in a quite different direction. I doubt very much that Alex would have ‘lied’ about the date of publication of Raya Dunevskya’s work as I can’t see what the motivation would have been. He may of course have got the date wrong.

    More substantively I don’t quite understand David’s point about Chris retreating from a critique of ‘state capitalist methods’. Importantly for the SWP tradition the theory of bureacratic state capitalism was located in a more general discussion of the relationship between state and capital in global capitalism. There was no specific critique of ‘state capitalist methods’ divorced from a critique of capitalism as a whole. But I’m a bit puzzled as to what David is alluding to here.


  4. fwiw, Dunayevskaya wasn’t the first either. The German/Dutch communist left, particlarly council communists, were calling the USSR state capitalist by 1918, such that Lenin felt the need to respond as follows, in May of that year.

    If the words we have quoted provoke a smile, the following discovery made by the “Left Communists” will provoke nothing short of Homeric laughter. According to them, under the “Bolshevik deviation to the right” the Soviet Republic is threatened with “evolution towards state capitalism”. They have really frightened us this time! And with what gusto these “Left Communists” repeat this threatening revelation in their theses and articles . . . .

    It has not occurred to them that state capitalism would be a step forward as compared with the present state of affairs in our Soviet Republic. If in approximately six months’ time state capitalism became established in our Republic, this would be a great success and a sure guarantee that within a year socialism will have gained a permanently firm hold and will have become invincible in our country.

    I can imagine with what noble indignation a “Left Communist” will recoil from these words, and what “devastating criticism” he will make to the workers against the “Bolshevik deviation to the right”. What! Transition to state capitalism in the Soviet Socialist Republic would be a step forward?. . . Isn’t this the betrayal of socialism?

    By 1922, Lenin was calling the USSR state capitalist himself:

    The state capitalism, which is one of the principal aspects of the New Economic Policy, is, under Soviet power, a form of capitalism that is deliberately permitted and restricted by the working class. Our state capitalism differs essentially from the state capitalism in countries that have bourgeois governments in that the state with us is represented not by the bourgeoisie, but by the proletariat, who has succeeded in winning the full confidence of the peasantry.

    So how or why anyone can possibly claim that either Cliff or Dunayevskaya came up with the idea is a mystery.


  5. For a start I never said she was the first, unlike Cliff who just ignored everyone else or called them ‘sectarians’. In fact a whole range of people developed the idea. The SPGB were in fact he first to call Soviet Russia state-capitalist – soon after the revolution. In fact there was very little of a theory of state-capitalism by the left-communists other than a name characterisation of the system for a very long time (Nobody called themseleves Council Communist at the time). It is also worth emphasising left communists were militant defenders of the soviet republic and within the Soviet Russia (the USSR did not exist at the time) they were Bolsheviks! Also Lenin did not describe the Soviet Republic or the USSR as state capitalist as a whole that is a distortion. In particular he was describing aspects of NEP.
    Dunayevskaya’s theory was debates widely in the 1940s, such as at the congress of the FI after the war at which she debated Mandel. Cliff simply ignores all this. She also participated in efforts at international regroupment with the adherents of various versions of this theory – the Milan confernce. Again Cliff would have nothing to do with such things.


  6. State capitalist theory was a way of surviving the Cold War and before that the Hitler/Stalin Pact. It is wrong not to assess it in the context of those times. The point being that if the USSR wasn’t socialist, what was it? Ans: [[ Put theory here…]]

    I think it’s a wrong theory and in the way it is applied to Cuba comes across almost absurd.(I’ve yet to read rigorous state cap analysis that works when applied to Cuba.

    But if applied to China today…well its’ spot on.

    The tragedy is that state capitalism is another theory that served to divide and splinter the revolutionary forces without impacting much on their political trajectory which has always been revolutionary and class struggle oriented. Almost every one of them regardless of what theory they adhered to.

    Now that the old workers states (or old state capitalist states) no longer exist its about time the far left got back together without using separate views of the Soviet Union as a shibboleth.


  7. Probably the first people to use the term state capitalism to describe the USSR were the socialist party of great britain. and its certainly true that Lenin used the term in relatioship to what he saw as a transitional period, Its why the debate about ‘who said it first’ is both rather childish, and at the same time beside the point. Its not a debate about the word. Its a debate about a workable Marxist concept. Those of us who accept it believe that Cliff worked out the first workable Marxist theory. Those who don’t, don’t accept that. But Cliff’s theory and those who developed it (probably most importantly kidron and harman) were concerned not to have a special theory of what the Soviet Union was (although thinking began there because this was the anomoly) but to have a theory of where capitalism as a whole was going. Bureacratic State Capitalism was only possible because of the existence of Monopoly State Capitalism. In other words the Soviet Union was concieved as an extreme end of a more global phenomenan: and it could only be that extreme because the actual capitalist class had actually been liquidated as a class by the October Revolution. A good thing to read is Kidron’s Maginot Marxism (available on-line) which gives some sense, by the late 1960s, of both the iconaclysm and the confidence of the state caps during the period.


  8. Hi John –

    “Those of us who accept it believe that Cliff worked out the first workable Marxist theory. Those who don’t, don’t accept that.”

    OK, but could you point to an article, or articles, where it’s explained why Cliff’s theory is different and better than those of Left Communists, Lenin (!) and Dunayevskaya?


  9. Firstly I should like to say how much I appreciate the content, and above all the tone of Andy’s tribute. I’ve read other pieces by Andy where he expresses considerable bitterness at the SWP. Obviously I disagree with him. But here his very generous tribute to Chris shows not only a recognition of Chris’s great merits, which we can all agree on, but an approach that recognises that what we agree on is far more significant than what we disagree on, and that we can disagree without being personally hostile. I’ve also been very pleased to read the warm tributes to Chris from Rob Hoveman and Kevin Ovenden, even though they had been very recently involved in a sharp factional dispute in which Chris was on the other side. So thanks very much Andy.

    On the question of the history of the theory of state capitalism the definitive treatment is Marcel van der Linden’s “Western Marxism and the Soviet Union” (Brill 2007). This gives full credit to the contributions of Cliff and Dunayevskaya as well as many others. Chris harman reviewed it at

    The question of the Cliff-Dunayevskaya relationship is complex, and I don’t think all the fault is on one side. Dunayevskaya was, to say the least, not a modest lady and had a rather sectarian style – I think any cooperation would have been difficult. Callinicos in his little book on Trotskyism does omit reference to Dunayevskaya – i would call this an unfortunate omission rather than a lie. However, the claim that Cliff refuised to vote for “Dunayevskaya’s resolution” at the 1948 FI Congress is bizarre. Neither Cliff nor Dunayevskaya were at the Congress (Cliff was exiled in Ireland and didn’t have a passport to travel). A bloc was formed of state cap and bureaucratic collectivist delegates, which was outvoted by the orthodox. The James-Dunayevskaya tendency was represented by Grace C lee, whom Dunayevskaya couldn’t mention because she had subsequently split with her and Lee had become an “unperson”.

    Whether Ellis Hillman was expelled for supporting Dunayevskaya is to say the least dubious. Hillman’s document argued that the Communist parties of the West were embryonic ruliong classes, which I had thought was a Shachtmanite position rather than an Dunayevskayan one. It was replied to by Duncan hallas – see

    However, i don;’t think the document was in itself the grounds for expulsion.

    What is clear is that Dunayevskaya’s inittial argument was very important, but that Cliff’s empirical work on Russia, Eastern Europe and China took the argument into far greater detail than anything Dunayevskaya produced, though she dismissed this as “economism”. I hope to deal with this question at greater length – though doubtless to nobody’s satisfaction – in my forthcoming biography of cliff.


  10. The Callinicos article already gives some clues as to what the IS/SRG critique of the Johnson-Forest theory would have been. James thought that Cliff and the SRG were far too spontaneist in their insistence on working class self-activity (Callinicos is addressing this in the part of his article where he says that James’ understanding of Hegel was such that he concluded: “Stalinism is a bitter obstacle. But see it as part of a process.”), so the criticism was not one way. Completely co-incidentally, yesterday I was reading about the first expulsion from the IS tendency, one Ellis Hillman, who was disciplined precisely for supporting the Johnson-Forest version of state Cap theory.

    I agree with johng that we are not interested in the bourgeois preoccupation with determining originality – who said what first – which exists only because of intellectual property laws which are quite irrelevant to socialists. Plenty of people used the term ‘state capitalism’ before Cliff. Some of them perhaps had something similar in mind (Lenin didn’t, though). Some of them (Ciliga perhaps) might in a (very broad) sense be said to be precursors or forerunners (though Ciliga has very little useful to say theoretically imho.) The point for those of us who consider ourselves to be in the Cliff tradition of state capitalist analysis is that we think that Cliff was the first person to create a theory capable of explaining the dynamics of those societies in order to understand their possible evolution and the significance, eg., of international competition between the Stalinist states and the west. There is no doubt that in parts Cliff relied on the arguments of others – why on earth shouldn’t he, if they were good arguments? It is also true that the theory was further developed and made considerably more sophisticated by, eg., Mike Kidron and Chris Harman. All of that is perfectly compatible with the idea that Cliff created a new theory, with different implications for socialist practice and orientation.

    I think that the real significance of the theory was not primarily it’s predictive/analytical power for explaining events ‘over there’ in Russia, etc.,, but rather what it implied for the relationship between party and class ‘over here’, wherever socialists happen to be working. Broadly, Cliff’s theory is based entirely on the idea that workers power is the central, decisive feature of socialism. Even if you don’t agree with the theory perhaps you can accept that for many of those who do, this is its real significance, and this, hopefully, is what we might have in common.


  11. Sorry, my last comment was posted before I’d seen Ian’s, which deals with the question far better than I could.


  12. At the risk of moving the debate into the totally esoteric, i am surprised at the claim that Hillman was expelled for being a Johnson-Forest supporter, for later in the 1950s there were other Johnson-Forestites in the Socialist Review group, notably James D Young, who discusses this in his autobiography. And there is nothing to suggest this in the SR minute books I have consulted at Warwick. If you have comae across a document which I may not have seen, could you e-mail me Andy (I have lost your e-mail). Thanks


  13. My source of this was Ellis himself who also gave his documents of the period, which alas I passed on. I also heard it from Jim Higgins late National Secretary of the International Socialists. Sadly the absence of records of expulsions would not suprise me at all in the Cliff organisation. There have been so many expulsions it would fill the British Library.

    I agree its not a question of who wrote what first but strength of the analysis itself. Though dishonesty of Cliff certainly reveals something about the nature of his method.

    There are many good theories of state capitalism in the USSR of which Dunayevskaya I think is one of the best in terms of depth of analysis and explaining laws of motion of this state capitalist society. It also places class struggle central to those society and their fall, a prognosis she outlined as early as 1953 despite Mr Ticktins claim to be the one claiming to have the answers and explanation for exerything that happened.


  14. I just happened to be glancing at Jim Higgin’s More Years For the Locust last night. I didn’t pay much attention as I didn’t expect to be discussing Ellis Hillman this morning, and it seems that I might have garbled things. A quick check of the book online reveals that what Jim actually said was:

    “In September 1951, the first expulsion took place when Ellis Hillman managed to get himself on the wrong side of Cliff. For the light it may throw on later exercises in disciplining the cadre, it may be worth detailing this at length. Hillman had, apparently, been asked by the Secretariat to prepare an internal discussion document and with all the self confidence of the bright, but very young, decided on a major revision of the group’s theory of state capitalism. In 17, single spaced, foolscap pages he developed the notion that the Stalinist parties were the state capitalist societies in embryo. This attempt to marry state capitalism with bureaucratic collectivism did not go down well. The Secretariat rejected the document on the grounds that Stalinist state capitalism grows out of the need for capital accumulation as set out by Cliff in his RCP Internal Bulletin. Duncan Hallas also wrote a lengthy reply, published later as part of Documents of the International Socialists, a somewhat one-sided exercise as Hillman’s original document is not published.

    What must have been especially galling to Cliff was that Hillman had been thoroughly enchanted by the works of the Johnson-Forest tendency [4] and, with an air of breathless awe, as if he had just met the Messiah on the Road to Damascus, he wrote: “… It is no exaggeration to say that Comrades Johnson-Forest’s latest work State Capitalism and the World Revolution is at a level at least the equal of Trotsky’s last works and a logical and fruitful development of them. The works on the state capitalism thesis that have been written so far have become obsolete and superfluous with the publication of Comrades Johnson-Forest’s masterpiece …”

    Having set to nought large chunks of Cliff’s magnum opus, Hillman than went on to produce another document (internal bulletin writing can become addictive and damages your membership prospects) Organic Unity. This proposed a closer working, with a view to unity, with Grant’s group. We have already seen that the Group was refusing all unity with defencist groups and few were more defencist than Grant’s.

    Hillman’s days were numbered. First he was the subject of a few stray, in fact mutually inconsistent, accusations of alien loyalty. On the basis of his piece on The Nature of the Stalinist Parties he was accused of being a Shachtmanite, on the basis of Organic Unity he was a Grantite and, on general principle, because they were unpopular at the time, he was also accused of being an IKDer. [5] Quite a lot of heresy for one so young.”


  15. I was sat at work all morning reading the comments on my phone and desperate to get to my laptop so I could post the Jim Higgins bit, looks like I’ve been beaten to it. So a few quick thoughts –

    I suppose one of the key differences between types of arguments used to justify state capitalist theses is of importance ‘over here’: namely, whether you argue that (a la Cliff) that the USSR was state capitalist because of its production/exploitation of surplus value for the purposes of global competition/arms markets (i.e. with the USA) or whether (according to Dunayevskaya) mere attributes of the system such as waged labour are sufficient justification in themselves. The arguments put forward by people like Otto Ruhle are of a different order, since if I’m not mistaken he argued that the mere existence of the Bolshevik Party as an elite was evidence that it was state capitalist.

    I would argue that an economy primarily based on waged labour is necessarily capitalist, even if the surplus value is not controlled by individuals. For that reason I would say Cuba’s economy is capitalist – not because of the piece rates, not because of the small market areas and dual currency/use of dollars, but in its very fundamentals. Unlike the USSR, certainly the Cuban economy is not organised for the purposes of global competition.

    Also there is the question of whether state capitalism is more advanced/regressive than other capitalisms, and linked to that, whether the bureaucracy is interchangeable with a private capitalist bourgeoisie. Of course somewhere like E Germany the bureaucracy was basically destroyed, but that is not proof that a different ruling class is in power, any more than the struggle between opposing wings of the Venezuelan ruling class over the direction of Venezuelan capitalist development relative to imperialism shows one or the other to be non-capitalist. And of course in China we see the same individuals in power but presiding over free-market reforms.

    I think the value of the state capitalist theory is not to ‘win the debate’ but indeed that it shapes our positions here, i.e. if we analyse Stalinism as state capitalism and see in it all the alienation and hierarchy of Western capitalism, then we should not call on the British state to take state capitalist measures.


  16. David, just on the point about Ruhle –

    The Bolsheviks carried out the nationalisation of industry, of transport, banks, factories, etc., and thus awoke quite generally the belief that socialist measures were involved here. Nevertheless, nationalisation is not socialisation. Through nationalisation you can arrive at a large-scale, tightly centrally-run state capitalism, which may exhibit various advantages as against private capitalism. Only it is still capitalism.

    I don’t think it’s just a ‘political’ characterisation.


  17. Agree with Andy on the political significance of the theory (and with Ian’s remarks about Andy’s obit) but I also think there is another dimension. The theory Cliff developed, as emphasised, allowed the development of theories about post-war capitalism as a whole. Within the IS tradition it became not simply a theory about Russia but about the whole development of post-war capitalism. Indeed in Kidron’s Maginot Marxism, his critique of Mandel, you get a strong sense of this as he regards Mandel’s theory as as outdated about contemporary capitalism in the west as it is about the mode of production in the east. The arguments were tied togeather whilst other theories of the Soviet formation tended to treat it as an exception (hence arguments about whether state capitalism was more progressive or not would not in the IS tradition be seperated from arguments about state capitalism in the west). Obviously the political implications Andy talks about can then be generalised to capitalism east and west.

    On the interesting stuff about the expulsion etc. I’d just say that Hallas piece on the Stalinist Parties was an excellent one. And that much as I sometimes enjoy reading Jim Higgens and much as I’m sure he was a wonderful militant it was a tragedy to lose, I sometimes get the sense that people present him as in some sense not someone who had a factional perspective himself. Some of what he says rings true to me and some does’nt. This isn’t about lying. Its about divergences of politics. I await Ian’s biography of Cliff eagerly.


  18. Oh on the question of whether to take state capitalist measures. This question is really related to the question of reforms under capitalism. We called for the nationalisation of the banks. This would not mean socialism. But we are not neutral between those who want to bail out bankers and those who want to tear their heads off, To paraphrase.


  19. The Workers Party in the USA had already developed all this with the theoretical work on the Permanent War Economy by Vance, etc. A whole volume of this has been issued by the Centre for Socialist History founded by Draper. Kidron did good work, but he and IS was not original.


  20. I don’t want to turn Ellis Hillman into an item of a factional debate about the merits or otherwise ofthe SWP. I am genuinely uncertain about the question, having heard different accounts from different people. Jim Higgins, while often perceptive and always entertaining, is not always accurate, and he doesn’t give sources for his claims. I’d be very interested to hear from Chris what happened to the Hillman documents, and if they are consultable. I would merely add that in September 1951 Cliff was still in Ireland, so it is not clear how closely he was involved in the Hillman affair; the Secretariat” to which Higgins refers consisted of Ken and Rhoda Tarbuck in Birmingham.

    More seriously, whether or not it deserved expulsion, Hillman’s document was certainly dangerously wrong. To argue that the British Communist Party was an embryonic ruling class would have made any serious work in the trade union movement quite impossible between the 1950s and the 1980s.

    It should also be noted that, whatever the merits of Dunayevskaya’s work on state capitalism, her overall perspective was catastrophically wrong. In State Capitalism and World Revolution by James and Dunayevskaya it is argued that the “whole system is in mortal crisis” and that the proletariat had never been “so revolutionary as it is today”. In 1950!!

    Finally in his 1948 state capitalism document Cliff promised a further document in which he would deal with Johnson-Forest, whom he accused of “a simplification of the analysis of the industrial reserve army and the crisis “. See
    I have never seen any trace of such a document and i can only assume it was never written. Comrades will doubtless draw whatever conclusions they wish from this fact.


  21. It is interesting to note though that Harman’s theory of state capitalism is almost completely different from Cliff’s.

    Cliff says that the law of value did not operate in the USSR.
    Harman says it did.

    Cliff says that there was no labour market.
    Harman says there was.

    Cliff says that there was a planned economy.
    Harman says there was not.

    Cliff says there could be no crisis of over accumulation.
    Harman says that the USSR collapsed because of over accumulation.

    It sum its difficult to find anything that they agreed on about the USSR – except it was capitalist of course!


  22. Oddly enough – and trying to return to the theme of this post – on every single one of the above disputed questions (as simplified as the list is) I think Chris Harman was (essentially) right.


  23. Dunayevskaya in 1947 attended the conference of the RCP (UK), and in France at the Second Congress of the Fourth International where she debated Ernest Mandel. This is recorded, I have all the letters from England to James about her encounters, and opinions of British Trotskyism at the time.

    The best book I have read on the many theories on the USSR is Capitalism and Class Struggle in the USSR A Marxist Theory by Neil Fernandez (1997). I think there are many other good works, my criticism of Cliff is his refusal to aknowledge them and deliberate distortive presentation of himself as thee theorist of state-capitalism.

    The old International Socialists did to its credit publish Marxism and Freedom, some things by the Scottish Marxist-Humanist Harry McShane.
    It is simply not true Dunayevskaya did not develop an extensive theory, unlike Cliff she read Russian and was steeped in original sources. She translated the 1844 Manuscripts and developed a lot of her theory around Marx’s theory of alienation which was pioneering at the time. Many of her works were staggered due to the editorial proscriptions of Schachtman.


  24. Oddly enough – and trying to return to the theme of this post – on every single one of the above disputed questions (as simplified as the list is) I think Chris Harman was (essentially) right.

    Never mind that there was no labour market, that there were no profits, that it was planned.


  25. Chris Harman’s death is indeed a sad loss, not only to the SWP, but the whole left. In my years as a “Cliffite” in the ‘70s it was clear to most that he was the best intellectual in the organization – and a non-academic one at that. Although I don’t like a lot of his writings (especially on the Middle East) I have always found his analysis of the global economic situation essential reading, especially since he adopted Temporal Single System Theory regarding Marx’s tendential law of the falling rate of profit.

    Like Chris I knew Ellis Hillman and a while back I typed up some extracts from the document Chris is referring to: ‘The Nature of the Stalinist State’ By Ellis Hillman. Internal discussion bulletin of the Socialist Review Group. May 1951.
    In this Hillman wrote:
    “It is no exaggeration to say that comrades Johnson-Forest’s last work, “State-Capitalism and the World Revolution”, is of a theoretical level at least the equal of Trotsky’s last works and a logical and fruitful development of them. The works on the state-capitalism thesis that have been written so far have become obsolete since. Comrades Johnson-Forest have succeeded in correlating the *political structure* of the Stalinist parties with the economic foundations of State-capitalism, and have thus rendered an invaluable service to the elucidation of new tactics and strategies flowing from our defeatist position in respect of the USSR.”

    My shortened version is 1200 words. Available to the Commune on request.

    David Black Hobgoblin co-editor.


  26. Bill J. Cliff wrote his book in the 1940s (updated through the 50s and 60s). Harman was developing the theory in the ’60s and 70s and 80s and 90s. Its not a religious text. Aside from that I know from past interventions that you seem terribly confused about what state caps mean when they discuss ‘planning’.


  27. Chris: for the record

    a) Dunayevskaya is not mentioned in the minutes of the FI World Congress of 1948, unless she was there under an impenetrable pseudonym.
    b)Cliff did know Russian. His parents were Russian, and he may well have spoken it as a child, though there was a push to get everyone to speak Hebrew.
    c) I did not deny that Dunayevskaya had an “extensive” theory. I said that Cliff did far more detailed empirical work on Russia, Eastern Europe and China, including the post-Stalin changes in Russia and China up to the Cultural Revolution. After that he rather lost interest and had other preoccupations. On Dunayevskaya’s own account her work was primarily philosophical, while Cliff’s was primarily economic.


  28. “Anarchy in the social division of Labour and despotism in the workshop are mutual conditions, the one of the other”

    Marx Capital volume one (quoted in Zombie Capitalism Harman p.80)

    “Planning within capitalism is not the opposite of the market; it is the way in which the capitalist tries to impose the demands of the market on the workforce”

    (Zombie Capitalism Harman).

    Join these quotes with Kidron’s argument against Mandel on the same subject with respect to what planning was actually for in the Soviet Union and you begin to see why Bill J’s populist attempts to counterpose plan to market to make the very idea of state capitalism seem ridiculous fall down. Its not that critics might not in principle be correct that planning in the Soviet Union was for other purposes. But thats an entirely different argument.


  29. It pains me to agree with Bill J, but the issue of whther or not the law of value operated within the Comecon countries is crucial.

    he is also correct that harman and cliff argue different positions.

    IMO Harman’s account is very unconvincing on this point.


  30. well i’m just reading zombie capitalism which is much more then the account of the current economic crisis i was expecting. it contains much material on this. I think the point about planning and the market not being opposed is the key one for me. I guess I just don’t understand what is unconvincing about it,

    And I don’t share your view of what cliff says. He says that viewed in isolation the law of value does’nt operate. But in the context of the global economy it does:


  31. I understand though that there was a shift in emphasis in Harman’s work partly in relationship to more empirical material on the labour market and partly in relationship to changes in these countries during the post-war period, These arguments then developed between Binn’s and Haynes and Callinicos.


  32. I’d never read anything much by Harman before, but his death has prompted me to do some reading. I must say, this essay, on the Workers’ Government slogan is absolutely brillant, perhaps the best strategic writings on the Marxist approach to the state I’ve read.

    Oddly, I think it’s basically the politics advocated in that article which our group defends against contemporary Trotskyists, including those in the SWP, today. I don’t say that to score a point, I don’t know if Harman formally updated his views on this, but it’s funny how things change.


  33. Don’t think he did change his mind…he stuck that up there hisself not that long ago. he got well into sticking stuff up on the net did our chris.


  34. c0mmunard: yes, indeed, this is the kind of stuff I think is great. If I remember rightly that article is part of a series of debates, roughly around the time of the Portuguese revolution, when Avanguardia Operaia got close to IS, with the Portuguese Partido Revolucionario do Proletariado thrown in as a sort of buy-one-get-one-free offer.

    I have a load of copies of the International Socialism mag from the time, anyone who fancies a look can get in touch at


  35. he also stuck this up which is perhaps more germane this discussion:

    I also think that some of the debates about whether labour power was a commodity, whilst involving loose ends in cliffs original presentation partly represented worries about what callinicos referred to in an article sadly not on-line (a very critical review of the end of the third world by nigel harris) as being perhaps bitten too hard by the bukharinite bug, evidenced in kidron’s later work. The locus classicus of this reaction is found in this Harman article, when we were beginning to see the first shifts towards what we now call globalisation both east and west-kidron continued down a bukharinite path which assumed that the merging of state and capital would continue all down the line:


  36. just to explain the bukharinite thing. one thing that differentiated swp state cap from other versions is that it attempted to root itself in the discussions of the relationship between state and capital in classical marxist literature on imperialism: with bukharin’s discussion of military competition displacing price competition in the global economy being an obvious starting point for anyone rethinking the relationship between state and capital.


  37. oh there is a full selection of international socialism on line from the 70s. just google it. also check chrs harmans back pages (bit hard to navigate i’m afraid but there is a lot more there then is at first apparent.


  38. further to my last comment, this is interesting from Tony Cliff on the workers’ government slogan as well. I’ve seen members of the AWL raise Saxony and Thuringia 1923 as the great case of the theory in action. I know pretty much nothing about this bit of history. But apparently…

    The Communists who entered the coalition governments in Saxony and Thuringia found themselves trapped by the Social Democrats, taking responsibility without power over the capitalist state machine. Instead of the governments arming the workers, they disarmed them ideologically and politically confused them.


  39. There is two sides to every story, Brandler and Thalheimer of the Communist Party Opposition who led the KPD in this period had a strategy foisted on them by the Comintern – they were then scapegoated by Trotsky, Zinoviev and the Russian Communist leaders for what happened. In fact in many ways I would argue their leadership was amongst the best in German communism.


  40. I think Comrades would be well advised to refer to Chris’s last article on ‘state cap’, coincidentally in this months just published (Nov) SR entitled ‘The theory that fuels the practice’.


  41. bloody awful document by comrade hillman. whatever the rights and wrongs of disciplinary moves hallas reply is excellent. it does make it obvious why whenever i had a row with an awl member i felt like sending it though! for all the frothing at the mouth and hysteria of the hillman document hallas is far more challenging to the orthodox trot ideas,


  42. I’ve read the Hallas article. No doubt I will have to return to it again.
    I just wonder ( and in the spirit of comradely inquiry ) to what extent ( if any ) has the SWP ( at least in its leadership ) developed into a ‘bureaucratic centralist’ party, given its role in the demise of the original Respect project ?


  43. I think that a period of on the one hand a high level of political radicalisation but on the other a very low level of class struggle disorientated the SWP. The difficulty here was not so much making mistakes (it was right to try a range of tactics to try and translate the political radicalisation into something concrete) as failing to correct them. There were many reasons for this, but as an SWP member, diagnosis nust be related to cure. It seems to me that one difficulty was a membership scattered across the battle-field, the core parts of which were being badly battered in workplaces up and down the country at the same time as the internal structures of the organisation were weaker then ever before. These two factors meant that the leadership of the organisation became isolated from what was happening on the ground, and those on the ground became isolated from what was happening to each other. Some of this (not all) was the product of being in the exciting but difficult situation of throwing relatively small resources into a massively larger movement. We had to do this. There was no choice. But a price was paid. For some on the left looking at the internal troubles of the SWP a polarisation seems to be developing between those who stress strengthening the structures and ‘building the party’ above ‘united fronts’. I think this is an entirely false polarisation. The SWP was able to play the role it did (which involved working with people who did not agree with our politics) because of all the organisations on the left we had a larger implantation in the organised labour movement and on the ground more widely then any other far left organisation. They did not work with us because of our revolutionary leadership. Those to the right of us are not revolutionaries. The success of our revolutionary leadership was that they had helped build a far left organisation on the ground of that type. The failure was to forget that this is what makes the engine run. Such difficulties have hit revolutionary organisations before in similar periods (just as revolutionary organisations with different politics can succede and grow in good periods, so to can different organisations with different politics get pulled apart or disoriented when movements decline). Two things make me pretty sure that we can pull back from disaster. One is that the roots of the problem are in fact being addressed by comrades, both in the leadership and out of it. And that this is occuring in a different period when these lessons are becoming pretty transparent to most. In terms of more general discussions on democracy and the revolutionary left I quite like John Molyneux’s recent article on democracy and revolutionary parties in the latest ISJ. Because of the shock of Chris Harman’s death I had also just read his old piece on the crisis of the revolutionary left in the late 1970s. It makes very interesting reading.


  44. Thanks for that insightful comment Johng.
    I’m ex SWP myself and was very disorientated by the disingenuous and destructive manouvers of the SWPcc at the time of the Respect split.
    I feel this has destroyed the credibility of both the SWP and the ‘left’ generally.
    But your right, seen in the context of the far too prolonged ‘downturn’ in class struggle it does account for some of the sectarian madness, although that’s no excuse for deliberate wrecking.
    I truly regret Chris’s passing, much of my political education is owed to his writings, however I can’t help feeling that his account of the Respect debacle was uncharacteristicly dishonest in that he covered up the destructive role of the SWPcc in preventing an agreement that had been reached to heal the split in Respect.
    He did this I suspect because he felt that to reveal the truth would have done a lot more harm than good to the SWP, the organisation that he had devoted his life to.
    Of course we will never know for sure now that he’s gone.
    It really up to SWP members like yourself that the neccessary moves are made to change the Party from the top-down travesty that it has become to one that can once again inspire confidence, learn from the class and give leadership.


  45. I don’t wholly disagree with much of this, but I do think that the constraints and resulting errors outlined in the first post applied to the other side as well. On this I’ve just been reading about the Scottish results and the inevitable new bout of recriminations. There too a split occured which was largely incomprehensible to anyone not directly involved (apparently in inverse proportions to the passions raised for those who were, as in the English case). On SUN where almost any discussion leads almost everyone (including probably myself!) to come across as largely demented to the disinterested observer, the fights between the comrades on different sides of the Scottish split often come across as even more deranged and short-sighted. I would suggest that this is largely because many of us reading SUN are unfamiliar with the ins and outs. But thats the case with most activists in Britain, many of whom were simply gobsmacked. This suggests to me that the tendency to explode in a welter of recriminations is a problem faced by the whole left at the moment and must in some way be related to objective circumstances. This is not to absolve any participants of their responsibility. Rather its to correctly locate them the better to ensure that they are not repeated. And the result in Scotland is a warning really. The satisfactions of proving EXACTLY why the other lot are WRONG, WRONG, WRONG, is pretty cold comfort after an election in which the BNP beat all the left candidates.


  46. Okay Johng,

    if not a ‘top down travestry’ how would you describe the current shortcomings of the SWP leadership ?
    I’m not referring to the Scottish furore, as you say to the outsider like myself it does appear as both tragedy and farce, although in the (literally) case of TS it did appear as though he protested too much !

    My concern (and involvement is with the fallout of the Respect debacle.

    The SWP was the driving force there but IMO it dropped the ball but then refused to give it up.
    ie: the lack of internal democracy in Respect seemed to be something of a reflection of the same in SW, which had deteoriated over a long time to a degree that prevented Respect developing a life of it’s own.
    The need for SW to have the leadership became a shibboleth without any balance.
    It was a tall order which I felt SW wasn’t fully up to at the time, but I was deeply dismayed that when challenged the reaction of the SWPcc was one to self-destruct. (The phrase was ‘go nuclear’ but I don’t think it helpful to attribute this disaster to any one or two individuals ).
    We have all suffered hugely with the resultant disunity.
    There is a big black hole where the ‘left’ should be.
    How can Humpty (ie: the left ) be put back together again ?
    I don’t know, but I’m asking.


  47. Well I don’t think the situation is that different to scotland. most people on the left just wish we’d all pull our finger out and move on. What we think about it is unimportant. In terms of what we’re doing, well our approach now is very different. There is a recognition that the left is scattered and fragmented. There is a recognition that continuing as if one section of the left can solve the problems of the whole left is mistaken. etc, There are no instant solutions and a few bold decarations won’t solve anything. I personally think that the SWP should support whatever left initiatives are taken electorally in the localities where such a challenge is possible (whether Greens, Respect or Bob Crow/SP) whatever other political differences. I also think though that the far left has a responsibility not to restrict itself to electoral politics. On the streets and in the workplaces battles are shaping up which are equally important. I don’t disagree with some of the criticisms you make but I also think there are two sides to that story. And you can’t say fairer then that really. We are where we are and the important thing is to avoid an Italian job. Any defeat for any section of the left of the left is at the moment a defeat for everyone.


  48. I thought this comment on socialist unity about the scottish situation probaby applies equally to English comrades (the person who made it is very far from being an SWP member):

    80.What an incredibly depressing by-election result for us on the non-Labour left.
    Three fucking socialist candidates standing on identical platforms and we make ourselves look like an absolute fucking joke!!
    Stupid, stupid stupid fucking wankers! What the fuck do we think we’re doing?
    Why the fuck do we think we can afford such un-fucking-believable self-indulgence?
    For fuck’s sake, the fucking BNP is knocking on the fucking door and we’re still playing these disgraceful, infantile sectarian games.
    We got to get a fucking grip on reality.


  49. Does anyone have information on this Milan conference of state capitalist tendencies? Was this in 1958 and was it Dunayevskaya and Bordigists or was it more broad? Any information would be appreciated.


Comments are closed.