Published on the Irish Socialist Workers Party Website, 7 November 2010.
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Chris Harman shortly before his death
Chris Harman, the editor of the International Socialism Journal died in Cairo in the early hours of Friday night (Irish time).
Chris Harman was one of the clearest writers on Marxist theory in the late twentieth century. Born to working class parents, he attended the London School of Economics where he joined the International Socialists. There he quickly learnt both the art of activism and theory. For the rest of his life, they remained inseparable.
While in college, the young Harman often invited prominent left intellectuals to address student audiences hoping that ‘the big name’ would attract a crowd. But once they had finished speaking, he showed up any weakness in their presentation when it came to understanding that ‘the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself’. Isaac Deutscher, the author of a three volume biography of Trotsky, was one of the early victims of Harman’s polemics as he expressed some support for the ‘progressive achievements’ of the Eastern Bloc tyrannies.
The Derry socialist Eamonn McCann often recounts a story from this period, when Chris Harman arrived in his city in the midst of the battle of the Bogside, carrying a rucksack of Socialist Workers. Such was the demand for left wing papers that people had to virtually queue up to get them.
That incident also explained one other great feature of Chris Harman’s life – he was a profound internationalist who always took the trouble to engage with the smallest revolutionary group in whatever part of the world they lived. It is a testimony to his life that he died far from his native home in London –- in Cairo where a ferment of left wing ideas has begun to re-emerge. Chris Harman’s writings and efforts has played no small a part in helping the seeds to germinate.
One of Chris Harman’s articles The Prophet and the Proletariat was written to help prevent the marginalisation of the Arab left before the rising tide of political Islam. The article attacked claims that political Islam represented a form of fascism and sought to explain its rise in terms of the failure of the nationalist left; the appeal that a return to pure Islam had for a middle class intelligentsia who suffered from the insults imposed on them by the empire; and the ability of such groups to garner support from sections of the urban poor.
The Irish revolutionary movement benefited greatly from Chris Harman’s advice and discussions. Less than year ago, he travelled to Dublin to address a day school on Marxist economics. He was a regular guest at the annual Marxism conference. For more than thirty years, he engaged with members of the Socialist Workers Party and its forerunner organisation in detailed discussions on strategy, tactics and ideas.
Chris Harman’s main contribution to the Marxist movement was, however in his writings. He began writing at a time when some Marxist prose was characterised by a thinness of ideas hidden by a complexity of prose. For Chris Harman, the audience for his writings were literate working class activists and students who wanted to breathe the fresh air of well presented arguments.
His first pamphlet, How the Revolution was Lost, was a brilliant, honest account of how the 1917 revolution decayed and gave rise to a Stalinist tyranny. It was directed against libertarians who opposed the idea of developing a revolutionary party.
Anyone starting out on Marxist ideas should start by looking at two other short pamphlets by Chris Harman.
How Marxism Works, is the most accessible modern introduction to the broad range of Marxist ideas while The Economics of the Madhouse is simply a masterpiece of clarity that tears apart the pretensions and lies of bourgeois economics.
Chris Harman could write so well precisely because he had grasped the full wealth of Marxist ideas. One of his last articles, for example, was a technical note on the theory of falling rate of profit. He could write both types of article because he stuck well to the motto of the original founder of the British SWP, Tony Cliff, who remarked that ‘if you cannot explain in the course of a bus ride from Euston to Hackney, why the British troops should get out of Ireland, it is probably because you don’t understand the argument fully’.
After Cliff, Chris Harman was the foremost exponents of the argument that the Stalinist regimes Eastern Europe were state capitalist tyrannies that had nothing to do with socialism. His book, Class Struggles in Eastern Europe, was written at a time when a section of the left thought they had to defend Stalinist regimes. To many younger leftists, it was simply an eye opener for revealing the scale of workers’ uprisings against those tyrannies. While Cliff laid down the foundation for the theory, Harman updated it continually by a regular commentary on the revolts which culminated on the fall of those regimes in 1989.
Chris Harman’s sense of revolution as a realisable, practical project that demands an understanding of tactics and strategy is in evident in The Fire Last Time, which provides the best Marxist account of the 1968 revolts and their aftermath, and The Lost Revolution, which was written as a handbook for understanding tactics and strategy by examining the case of the failed German Revolution between 1918 and 1923.
In recent years, Chris Harman left behind two absolute masterpieces:
Memories of Chris Harman will often be framed by discussions where he shifted quickly from discussing general Marxist ideas to thinking about how you could encapsulate an argument around a popular slogan. That talent spring from a profound understanding of the dialectic that arises from how a revolutionary party must relate to and learn from the wider working class. That’s same dialectic led Chris in the last years of his life to blow the whistle on the difficulties that the British SWP experienced after trying to found a radical left via the Respect project. The argument that he and the current leadership of the SWP instituted was for a real return to party building, for a new focus on working class struggles and for a greater opening to full debate and discussion inside revolutionary organisations. And all the while doing this without turning inward to a defensive mode but building a new revolutionary cadre though looking outwards in non-dogmatic ways,
Chris Harman will be very sadly missed – but his life is a testimony to the achievement of how working class people can produce wondrous ideas – even while remaining unknown to academic establishment.
Last updated on 23 January 2010