Phil Sharpe


Chris Harman, key leader of the Socialist Workers Party

(November 2009)

Published on the A World To Win Website.
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Chris Harman, one of the main leaders of the British Socialist Workers Party, has died aged 66. Harman was a populariser and propagandist of the SWP’s ideas through several books and many articles. Phil Sharpe estimates his political contribution.

Chris Harman was part of the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) for many decades. He was editor of Socialist Worker for more than 20 years and was editor of the International Socialism Journal when he died from cardiac arrest on November 7 while attending a meeting in Cairo.

He wrote many scholarly works on Marxism, in particular in the realm of economics and history. His major work was about world history, which showed that the Marxist method did not have a Eurocentric bias, and instead could be used flexibly and sensitively for the study of Asia, Africa and Latin America. In particular, he outlined how the Chinese empire declined from being the highest expression of world civilisation because of the impact of centralised state feudalism.

However, his analysis of the 20th century was not so perceptive because of the limitations of the theory of state capitalism, which has been integral to the character of the SWP, and its predecessor, the International Socialist Group. Harman generally considered 20th century history as the era of the ascendency of state capitalism, which is how the SWP characterised the USSR despite the overthrow of private property in 1917.

Harman was willing occasionally to depart from SWP orthodoxy, as his work on world history indicates. His approach in this work showed that the importance of politics and the class struggle can undermine the steady progress of the productive forces. The question as to whether the economic base can be compatible with the requirements of historical development is dependent on the character of the relations of production, and it is entirely possible that this relationship can result in an historical impasse.

He carefully outlines how the economic problems created in parts of the world meant that capitalism was not an inevitable prospect of history. The durability of feudalism meant that the prospect of progress was a complex and contradictory issue, and so popular revolution was crucial to the development of capitalism. This standpoint contrasts with his emphasis on the theory of state capitalism, which reduces history solely to the imperatives of the productive forces. The distant past is elaborated with great creative scope, but the more recent past is considered in terms of economic determinism that glosses over the process of interaction between economics and politics.

For example, the rise of the Soviet bureaucracy is essentially reduced to and explained by the role of forced collectivisation and rapid industrialisation. The ideological aspect of the theory of socialism in one country advocated by Stalin and his supporters is underestimated. This means that the relation of ideology to the role of the Soviet bureaucracy is ignored, and instead the bureaucracy is reduced to being a passive expression of the requirements of the productive forces. The result of this approach is to suggest that the Soviet social formation is an expression of a type of progressive state capitalism. This denies its political character as a type of voluntarism that is translated into adventurist economic policies.

In reality, the Soviet bureaucracy was an expression of the conception that socialist relations of production in the USSR, as promoted by the emerging bureaucracy, could create the material forces of socialism. The elite assumed for itself the most dynamic and important role in the supposed transition to socialism. In other words, socialism could not be anything other than the expression of the social importance of bureaucracy, and so was a rationalisation of the role of the elite. The role of politics defined what was possible at the level of economics.

The mistake of the SWP was to invert this relation. The Stalinist bureaucracy was defined in terms of economic rationality. Collectivisation and industrialisation became a distorted expression of what was possible and necessary in order to build the material forces of socialism. State capitalism represented what was possible at the level of the productive forces, and so was unable to explain the regressive economic processes within society.

State capitalism as a theory could provide a rough explanation of the extensive growth of the economic forces in the early years of industrialisation, but was unable to comprehend the increasing crisis of the system in terms of the limitations of both quantitative and qualitative growth and the increasing levels of waste.

The result was that the SWP were unable to identify the forces of progress in this situation, and so their approach was that of political abstention in the crucial years of perestroika and glasnost in the late 1980s when Gorbachev’s policies precipitated the disintegration of Stalinism. Harman considered that his role was to make the theory of state capitalism more contemporary. He helped to articulate the view that the USSR was imperialist because of its apparent economic and military domination of Eastern Europe.

This conception meant upholding the integrity of the theory of state capitalism to the detriment of Lenin’s theory of imperialism, which had equated modern finance capital as the basis of the impetus for colonial expansion and as the basis for understanding inter-imperialist conflict. The USSR certainly expressed aspects of imperialism in terms of its military occupation of Eastern Europe. But this expansion lacked the character of modern imperialism because it did not express the character of capitalist economic domination.

The USSR’s occupation of Eastern Europe was essentially a defensive response to the encirclement of its borders by the forces of American imperialism. This meant the Cold War could not be explained as a contest between rival capitalist powers for the division of the world. Only the dogmatists upholding the theory of state capitalism could understand the world in these vulgar terms. Instead it was necessary to recognise the complexity of the conflict of ideology, and of competing conceptions of security, if the Cold War was to be understood.

The political result of this economic dogmatism was that the SWP refused to recognise any situation in which it might be politically necessary to defend the USSR against the attempt by American imperialism to undermine the gains made by the regime of the October revolution. Instead the SWP generally abstained when this issue became important, which was shown by their refusal to support the people of Korea in the war against the forces of imperialism. Importantly, the approach of the SWP constantly over-estimated the economic strength and dynamism of state capitalism of the USSR, and underestimated the capacity of American imperialism to exert pressure in the form of military conflict.

Instead the arms race was considered to be functional to the requirements of state capitalism, and the actual situation in which the large size of the arms economy undermined the capacity to develop the civilian economy was not recognised by the adherents of state capitalism. The aim of the Reagan administration to undermine the Soviet economy by intensifying the arms race was not recognised. Harman contributed to the illusion that the USSR represented the wave of the future because of its state capitalist nature. The actual backward and vulnerable character of the USSR because of the pressures of the world capitalist system was not recognised. This meant that the SWP was unable to recognise the historical truth of Gorbachev’s view that the USSR was a system in crisis, and this meant they could not articulate how revolutionary development was the only possibility for resolving this situation.

The end to the military occupation of Eastern Europe by the USSR might have led to important questions being raised by the SWP about the validity of the theory of state capitalism. But Harman led the attempt to retain the integrity of the theory by arguing that the process of historical change was not problematic and that a change in form from one type of capitalism to another was not unique and exceptional. But, what he could not clarify was how a type of capitalism that was apparently functional for the requirements of the productive forces and the arms economy had to be transformed. In other words, he could not explain how state capitalism had become parasitic and had led to political discontent that had acquired revolutionary dimensions.

The process of revolution in Eastern Europe was a mystery to the theorists of state capitalism. By contrast, supporters of the theory of the degenerated workers’ state, first elaborated by Trotsky, could show that the process of revolutionary change had undermined the continuation of bureaucratic regimes while such a process was not in itself sufficient to realise a genuine social revolution.

The complexity of historical development, which exposed the limitations of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and of the other Stalinist parties, meant that the revolutionary impetus of glasnost could not be realised. The ultimate result was that sections of the bureaucracy attempted to restore capitalism under the Yeltsin regime. The contradictions of the bureaucratic-command economy were tackled in a reactionary manner by the dismantling of the nationalised economy and its replacement by the private ownership of the means of production. The SWP ignored how such a complex process undermined their schema of history.

The approach of the SWP is most compatible with periods of stability, which means they are unable to recognise the necessity for leaps in consciousness in order to understand a period of intense contradictions. Consequently, the 1980’s was not comprehended as a period of crisis, which culminated in the miner’s strike of 1984-85.

The possibility for the miners to lead a struggle against the attempt by the ruling class to undermine social conditions in the interests of profit was rejected by the SWP, who instead defined this period as a downturn in the class struggle. SWP theoreticians could only recognise the difficulties of the situation, and so rejected any attempt to relate to the potential to develop the class struggle.

The defeat of the miners’ strike was not a vindication of the SWP’s pessimistic perspectives, and was instead an expression of the success of the TUC and Labour party leadership in isolating the strike. A possibly favourable balance of class forces had been turned into its opposite by the role of opportunism. In this political process, the SWP had played a discreditable role. It was only able to survive and even thrive because the aftermath of the miners’ strike led to an acute crisis of the forces of revolutionary Marxism. The SWP emerged as the hegemonic force claiming to be Marxist. In this situation, Harman became one of the central leaders of the SWP.

The period of the massive demonstrations against the war in Iraq seems to represent a golden period for the SWP. The SWP became organisationally important as a leading component of the Stop The War Coalition. A new generation of SWP leaders, like John Rees, were associated with this development, and ‘old-timers’ like Harman seemed content to take a back seat. But the apparent organisational gains of the SWP actually represented a right-wing shift. The SWP was content to accommodate to its new allies rather than support principled politics like the call for opposition to the New Labour government.

Support for the populist Respect political formation did not revive the fortunes of the SWP, and instead resulted in new tensions and splits. Harman and Alex Callinicos gradually became an alternative pole of leadership, and seemed to represent the past orthodoxy of the SWP. It seemed that if Rees was removed as leader, the possibility would develop that Callinicos and Harman could revive the SWP as a “revolutionary party”. Instead the removal of Rees did nothing to change the declining situation of the SWP, even though Harman represented the reassurance of the victory of orthodoxy against opportunism.

However, the crisis of the party continued in the situation of an increasing right-wing trend within British politics, and the leadership proposed to meet the challenge by the declaration of a call for unity of the left against the success of the far-right British National Party. But the response to this declaration was mixed, and the SWP failed to support the call for a democratic conference that would have enhanced the prospect of genuine progress towards realisation of their proposal. Instead the SWP has preferred relatively closed negotiation with the Socialist party, which has meant that instead of a genuine democratic development, the question of left unity is reduced to the formation of a new bureaucratic type of political alliance. In other words, the role of the Harman and the leadership was that of safety first, the attempt to assert the dominant position of the SWP on the left without the risk of any important innovation.

In summary, Chris Harman was a self-sacrificing leader of the SWP. He was a talented theoretician, and capable of important insights, such as outlining the importance of the rate of profit for understanding the increasing economic crisis of capitalism. His limitations were an expression of the problems of the SWP, its dogmatism and inability to respond adequately to changing circumstances. But in the last analysis we have to remember those who dedicated themselves like Harman in the best possible light, and accept that he acted with the best intentions. His theoretical mistakes should be understood, criticised and corrected in that spirit.

Last updated on 23 January 2010