Chris Harman


Response to Christopher Hitchens

(January 1994)

From London Review of Books, Vol. 16 No. 2, 27 January 1994.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I was saddened to read Chris Hitchens’s review of the two Socialist Workers Party books, In the Heat of the Struggle (edited by me with an introduction by Paul Foot) and Why You Should Join the Socialists (by Paul Foot). Not because the review was critical. That was to be expected, since Chris has not agreed with our political analyses for the best part of two decades. But because it was marked by a greater degree of amnesia and distortion than one would expect from one of the best radical journalists around.

Chris describes the Eighties as a time when workers ‘who were doing jobs that nobody really wanted done’ were ‘hit’ by Thatcherism, with the Left defending ‘a way of life that was historically redundant’. Such glib journalistic phrases are hardly adequate to describe what happened in a long period of reaction on both sides of the Atlantic. Increasingly confident ruling classes set out to reverse the gains made by organised workers in the long post-war economic boom. Alongside this went onslaughts on all those whose conditions had improved so long as union strength forced governments to adopt some form of consensus politics – particularly the unemployed and the poor, the sick and the elderly. There were repeated attempts to roll back advances made by ethnic minorities and women. Finally, there were the renewed efforts to reimpose the Western ruling classes’ sway over the rest of the world – the Carter-Reagan-Bush arms build-up, Thatcher’s war in the South Atlantic, the Israeli and US incursions into the Lebanon, the bombing of Libya and the occupation of Panama, the blitzkrieg of Baghdad and the butchery on the road to Basra.

Fighting back against all these things was hard and often dispiriting work for the Left. We lost many more battles than we won. A lot of socialists dropped out of the struggle, worn out, beaten down and, in the case of thousands of worker activists, victimised. Some of those who dropped out became disillusioned with the possibility of social change; a handful, known and disliked as much by Chris as by ourselves, chose to join the other side. But this is no reason for forgetting, as Chris seems to, that the struggles took place or for seeing them as a result of some romantic nostalgia.

Amnesia also afflicts Chris when he writes about the British Nazis in the late Seventies. He says the Socialist Workers Party’s leadership deliberately overstated their importance, in the hope ‘of picking up some impressionable young members’ by engaging in ‘street theatre’. I don’t know where Chris was in the summer of 1977. I lived in one of the many less fashionable parts of Hackney (as I still do) and I wasn’t alone in looking over my shoulder as I walked down the street, knowing the fascists had received more than 100,000 votes in the GLC elections, that racial killings were averaging one a fortnight, and that white socialists were regularly being beaten up. The NF were not, of course, in the position to make a bid for power. But they were capable of making the sort of impact on British politics that Le Pen has since made on French politics – and, in the process, raising the level of racism to terrifying proportions. Surely, the success of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism in stopping their advance was a cause for celebration, not for bemoaning the initiative of the SWP as Chris does.

Chris claims that ‘worst of all’ we supported ‘near Baader-Meinhof elements’ in Portugal in 1975. He is completely wrong. Those who went there for Socialist Worker, like Nigel Harris, Laurie Flynn, Paul Foot and myself, found a country where enormous revolutionary spirit was being dissipated by the most Stalinist of Communist Parties, on the one hand, and Nato-backed social democrats, on the other. We also found socialists attempting to counter this by arguing, with a limited degree of success, for workers’ and soldiers’ councils – and getting denounced by the Stalinists for their efforts. Whatever the mistakes of analysis and activity, this was a far cry from the assassinations and the kidnappings that characterised the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy.

One final insinuation sticks in my throat. Chris implies that the old international Socialists were characterised by bold and innovative thinking, but that the Socialist Workers Party today merely repeats dogma by rote. In fact, if he followed our publications he would know that we have continued to question the dogmas of the fashionable Left. We recognised a downturn in the class struggle in the late Seventies long before most of the Left and a decade later we opposed the nostrums of Marxism Today, with their claim that the class struggle no longer mattered. We were as enthusiastic as Chris about Solidarnosc at a time when most of the Left regarded it as a CIA front. But we insisted, as against people like Kuron, that moving from state capitalism to market capitalism would neither improve the mass of people’s appalling living conditions nor provide a guarantee of real democracy. And for three bitter years we have been denouncing the Governments of Serbia and Croatia, but also refusing to fall into the trap of believing that somehow Western intervention can do any more good in former Yugoslavia than it did in Central America, Lebanon, the Gulf and Somalia.

Chris may believe that the Socialist Workers Party today is intellectually arid and that the future lies with ex-members of the IS and the SWP (presumably, by that, meaning those like himself who have stayed on the left, as opposed to the real defectors like former News of the World editor Wendy Henry, Daily Mail leader writer Roger Rosewell, Sun columnist Garry Bushell and the Daily Express’s Peter Hitchens). I doubt if that will be the opinion of anyone who actually reads the range of debates in our monthly Socialist Review and our quarterly journal, still called International Socialism and more exciting if anything than when I edited it in Chris’s youth.

If we are all to cope with the real issues confronting humanity as the new world order reveals its real face, then the different sections of the Left have to learn to work together and to engage in serious intellectual debate without name-calling. That’s why the tone of Chris’s review was so disappointing. I trust it won’t stop us fighting alongside each other on many occasions in the future.


Chris Harman
Socialist Worker, London E3

Last updated on 26.12.2011