Splintered Sunrise


Fixed and consequent

(16 November 2009)

Published on the Splintered Sunrise Blog, 16 November 2009.
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Chris Harman

For the last week or so I’ve been turning over some thoughts about the passing of Chris Harman in my head, trying to get a clearer picture. There’s no doubt of course that Chris’ sudden death leaves an enormous hole in the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party; beyond that, it’s a loss to the entire left, which is not overburdened with people like Chris. And, although I was never personally close to Chris – even had I had more contact with him, he wasn’t the easiest person to get close to – it’s almost like losing a member of the family. Cliff was Cliff and was uniquely unique, but for many of us Chris was arguably more important in shaping our ideas.

Some random impressions. I have in my head going to a smallish meeting in a dank room above a pub in a provincial town, and seeing at the head of the room an unprepossessing figure who reminded me for some unaccountable reason of Bob Ross, mumbling about the Permanent Arms Economy. The last time I saw Chris was in a more salubrious venue at a conference in London, where he was speaking on revolutionary politics in the 1970s, and got through around 45 minutes without notes – something that annoys me intensely in some speakers, but I was willing to forgive in Chris. His speaking style was as unflashy as his writing style – the nearest thing to a tic was his tendency to quote Dylan lyrics, which was slightly odd as I had him pegged as more of a Herman’s Hermits man – but there was enough there in terms of concentrated ideas to hold your attention from start to finish.

Everyone seemed to have a Chris Harman story, often centring around his lack of social skills, but that wasn’t necessarily unkind. I can’t remember encountering anyone who was more consistently left brain in the way he operated. If he wasn’t the hail-fellow-well-met type, nor was he one of those pocket Lenins who would throw a hissy fit when crossed – far from being puffed up with his own importance, he was probably excessively modest. At SWP parties, Chris was invariably to be found in the kitchen, immersed in a conversation about profit margins in the natural gas industry or some such. (This is where I suspect my memory. I vividly recall the stereo playing Wham Rap!, but that just can’t be. It was probably the Specials.) Sometimes you would try to talk to him and he would stare through you as if you weren’t there; sometimes he would accost you out of nowhere, and without any small talk ask how your Russian was these days and whether you could look him out such and such an article.

His writing was the thing that will outlast him. Much of his material was first-rate. I particularly liked Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe, and The Lost Revolution on post-WW1 Germany. The Fire Last Time was, for my money, the best single overview of the movement of 1968. I wasn’t quite so keen on his People’s History of the World, although it’s proved enduringly popular, but then my preference in history is for the focused and specialist. This is why Chris, though he certainly had the brains to be a successful academic, didn’t have the temperament for it. The People’s History shows the polymathic sweep of his interests – there was literally nothing in human experience that was alien to him. To put it another way, Richard Evans has written a whole series of brilliant books on German history, but I suspect he would look at you funny if you asked him to write something on mediaeval China – the norm amongst academics is to devote years to mastering their patch. Chris didn’t have a patch, or rather his patch covered everything. That’s why party comrades, sometimes mockingly and sometimes affectionately, knew him as the Renaissance Man – if you wanted a plausible Marxist analysis of the most obscure historical or theoretical issue, Chris was the man to go to.

Ideologically, he had a reputation for picking up Cliff’s ball and running with it, although some of his work – notably on state capitalism – ran almost entirely on a different track. He was also, after Kidron’s departure, the only man left with both the ability and inclination to do book-length studies of political economy. (In fact, it’s hard to think of anyone on the Anglophone left who still does that.) But his real forte was as an educator of generations of radicals, and as a populariser of Marxist ideas. Yes, he spent nigh on thirty years editing Socialist Worker, and he was the author of the popular primers How Marxism Works and Economics of the Madhouse. Mind you, I found him most appealing as an essayist. His long-running column in Socialist Review always provided you with some food for thought. And there was some truly excellent Harman material in the ISJ. One thinks of the economic articles that were collected into Explaining the Crisis, or his debate on political Islam with Phil Marfleet, his side of which was published as The Prophet and the Proletariat.

That’s why I felt, when Chris took over the editorship of the ISJ a few years back, it was as if he had come home – that’s where he should have been all along. The journal these days is much more accessible, and though it’s still very much a party journal it’s much more open in terms of contributions, which reflects Chris’ willingness to argue the toss with anyone. From a personal point of view, it’s much improved from the days when it was all 60-page essays on the Russian Revolution from the same handful of people – hopefully the quality can be kept up, which places a responsibility on the co-thinkers Chris had gathered around him on the editorial board.

There is a further aspect of Chris I want to touch on, which is his approach to Leninism. Party and Class is not an unproblematic essay, especially in the way it casts centralism as ontologically superior to democracy in the DC formula, but it does contain the extremely important insight that the only guarantee against a capricious leadership is an educated, assertive and combative membership keeping the leadership in line. This insight was, I fear, lost on some of the younger leaders, who seem far too keen on the idea of a priestly caste of leaders keeping the membership in line. It was also obscured by Chris’ own behaviour at times. Not that he was the 100% personal supporter of Cliff often assumed – they did have their arguments – but after the splits of the 1970s Chris, along with Cliff and Duncan and others, was involved in the tacit agreement that the CC should keep all its disagreements internal and never ever appear disunited in front of the membership. This was inevitably going to stultify the organisation – as even Alex Callinicos has admitted, even if you think the leadership has mostly been correct, two contested elections in thirty years is not healthy. One might add other features – for instance, the control commission may at some time have rejected a CC disciplinary measure, but nobody seems able to remember such an event.

This early insight comes into play in terms of the debates in the party over the past year or so. Chris remarked – and I don’t at all believe he was being disingenuous – on how frustrating he found it to write an article that he hoped would kickstart a debate, only to find that nobody was willing to take issue with it. The key point about the debate around the Respect split – and this is something that Swiss Toni’s amazingly factional obit fails to understand – is not that some people raised weaknesses in John Rees’ modus operandi. (Chris, having opposed Rees’ promotion to the CC in the first place, could have claimed some moral capital, although that was slightly diminished by the articles he’d written supporting John and Lindsey’s brainstorms in the interim.) The point was that the split exposed systematic deficiencies in the party’s culture and processes, and these were what had allowed Rees to do what he did – I would go further and say that they encouraged the less healthy aspects of Rees’ character to come to the fore. And so, although I have serious doubts about the “democratic renewal” process in the SWP, one felt much more optimistic about it knowing that Chris was involved.

And this, I think, illustrates something important about Chris and the genuine respect in which he was held. The fact that Chris was never an oppositionist didn’t stop many comrades identifying themselves, effectively, as Harmanites. At various points when the leadership seemed to be going mad, Chris would write these articles that may have simply been assertions of orthodox IS politics, and may well not have been intended as shots across anyone’s bows, but were often read as such. It’s likely that on many – perhaps most – such occasions people were inflating minor differences in emphasis into something more significant. But there is something to be said about the appeal Chris held for the sceptical or disgruntled. There are people in the SWP, frankly, whose support the leadership will never have to worry about because they will support anything that comes out of the leadership. The party has always found it difficult to accommodate those with an independent cast of mind. That for those people Chris would be a touchstone of all that was thoughtful, sensible, sane and Marxist about the SWP – that may not be a tribute he would have sought, but it’s a good enough indication of what he meant to many people.

Last updated on 23 January 2010