It is still kind of hard to take in the terribly sad news of the passing of Chris Harman
, who at the time of his relatively early death while out in Egypt
was perhaps the leading theoretician of the International Socialist tradition. That his death comes as not only a personal blow to those who were close to him but also a political blow to those who stand in that tradition does not need to be stated - the greater one's understanding of the history of that tradition in general and knowledge of his contribution in particular, the deeper the understanding one has of just how sorely he will be missed in the struggles ahead.
A former student of Ralph Miliband, it was during the early 1960s at the University of Leeds and particularly the year 1968 while around the London School of Economics that Chris Harman came to prominence as a leader of the student revolt. It seems he had embarked on a Phd with Miliband when 1968 broke out - but then abandoned this along with any idea of making an academic career - no doubt agreeing with the sentiment of Lenin that 'It is more pleasant and useful to go through the ''experience of revolution'' than to write about it.' I don't have the exact reference at hand, but in David Caute's book on 1968 Year of the Barricades
, there is a description of Harman striding to the front to address a mass meeting of students and telling them that 1968 was 'a year of international revolution that would go down in history like 1789, 1830, 1848, 1871, 1917 and 1936' and noting that students turned to each other with puzzled expressions to see if anyone knew anything about the 1830 revolution.*
Yet after 1968, Harman did decide to write about that 'year of revolution'. An autodidactic at heart, whose interests ranged widely, he seems to have among other things taught himself a whole range of European languages in order in part to write a genuinely internationalist account of the year 1968 and its aftermath - a year marked as much by workers' struggles as the rise of the New Left intellectually - as well as an important work on the 'Lost Revolution' in Germany 1918-23. While he could with ease have risen in academia in a whole number of disciplines (economics, philosophy, history, politics, sociology...) he stayed the course as a leading member of the Socialist Workers' Party in Britain and so lived out his life as 'above all, a revolutionary'. It is doubtful that he would have enjoyed a career in academia greatly though - where the driving pressure is to say something 'new' - regardless of whether it is profoundly useful or utter rubbish. Harman was of course an original Marxist in many ways - think for example of his pamphlet on the contradictions of Islam, The prophet and the proletariat
, but the idea of a 'Harmanite' is unthinkable - above all Harman was a disciple and follower of Tony Cliff - and unapologetic about the fact (see what must be one of his last articles on the importance of the theory of State capitalism
as developed by Cliff for understanding the 1989 Revolutions in Eastern Europe). As a result, as a Marxist theorist he was often ignored and snubbed by the more snobbish dedicated followers of contemporary intellectual fashion on the Left, despite the fact that intellectually he towered above almost all of those he critically analysed as 'academic Marxists'. Time and again for example, at meetings at say Historical Materialism conference, one would hear a presentation given by some leading theorist - almost certainly a professor of something or other - that left most people just feeling small at how little one knew of say the minute complexities of certain details of Marxist economic theory - only for Chris Harman to invariably rise from his seat, grab the key point of the speaker and then either develop or critique it but in language anyone there could understand - and so one would leave the meeting feeling one had learnt something new about Marxism as a result. Yet it is telling for example, that to the best of my knowledge those times he did offer articles to New Left Review
, they were turned down (interestingly he does get the briefest of mentions in the latest issue of NLR
, in an interview given by the late Peter Gowan, giving a talk for the International Socialists on the Cuban Revolution that was attended by Gowan, who was unimpressed by Harman's principled Marxist criticism of Castro). Yet, and what was critical, Harman did not write such still unparalleled works as The Fire Last Time
(a work respected by Rage Against the Machine among others) and A People's History of the World
with academics in mind as his audience - he wrote to educate and engage with a working class audience and win young people to revolutionary politics. As a result some of his writing could be dismissed as 'populist' - but this is to mistake his purpose in writing and the audience he had in mind.
It was as primarily an outstanding populariser of Marxism then, and at first through such accessible and clearly written books such as How Marxism Works
or his contribution to the collection Party and Class
that I guess many people of my generation first encountered Harman's work. Those of us in the SWP in Britain were lucky that we could regularly hear him speak - if sometimes we were a little embarrassed and ashamed when he turned up to give a meeting to say only a handful of students. In later years, the intellectual respect for him among particularly young people internationally who had been won to revolutionary Marxism through reading the likes of Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas and himself was profound. Yet on meeting him, one was struck by how incredibly modest about his intellectual abilities he was, and his endearing humility was something in utter contrast to some Marxists one meets. It is impossible here to give more than a sense of the intellectual debt I and no doubt others feel we owe to Chris Harman - a debt that can in no way be repaid in a blog post. While I will obviously add obituaries, tributes etc etc as and when they appear to this post - one is just left with a sense of the profound injustice of his passing. Why, when fighters of the ruling class such as Thatcher and Kissinger seem to be able to live on and on forever, do those who devote their lives to fighting for the oppressed and exploited of the world so often have to die before their time?
Chris Harman Internet Archive
Tributes to Chris Harman
/ More tributes
/ Even more tributes
, 'Obituary: Chris Harman, 1942-2009'
, Obituary from The Independent
(see also a longer version here
, Obituary in the Guardian
'Chris Harman: a life in the struggle'
, 'Chris Harman's ideas were forged in the heat of the struggles of 1968'
, 'Another Side of Chris Harman'
'A whiff of teargas'
'Chris Harman: A thinker and a polemicist'
1983 Interview with Chris Harman about Socialist Worker
2009 Interview with Chris Harman about writing A People's History of the World
, Chris Harman on Ho Chi Minh, 1969
, Tribute (see also Mary Phillips
, 'Chris Harman RIP'
, for the Irish SWP
, for SEK (Greece)
, for All Together (South Korea)
François Coustal and Dominique Angelini
, for the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in France, 'Hommage a Chris Harman'
on Zombie Capitalism
, for the London Socialist Historian's Group
En Lucha (Spain)
, Tribute (in Spanish).
, Tribute (in German)
, for Solidarity (Australia), Tribute
'Ideas for Revolution in the 21st century'
, for the American ISO, 'A powerful voice for international socialism'
Socialist Resistance editorial board
, 'Chris Harman: A life in the heart of the struggle'
Colin Falconer and John Mullen
, for Marxists Unitaires (in French)
, 'RIP Chris Harman'
, for Socialist Alternative (Australia), 'Chris Harman's death a tragic loss for socialist movement'
, 'Fixed and Consequent'
, 'Obituary of Chris Harman'
* The actual account from Caute (p.320) is as follows - one obviously has to take into account Caute's bias against revolutionary politics:
On 14 June 1968, a new national grouping, the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation (RSSF), held its inaugural conference at the LSE in the volatile atmosphere generated by events in France. ('Students of the world IGNITE,' exhorted a poster.) The conference, which rejected parliamentary politics outright, was attended by two leaders of the French insurrection, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Alain Geismar, both clearly exhausted (Geismar had been fighting the police outside the Renault factory at Flins). A humourous report of these sessions by David Widgery portrays the intervention of Chris Harman, a Trotskyite who habitually began his speeches, 'We have to be absolutely clear about this'. Greeted with friendly groans, Harman brandished his moped crash helmet: 'We must be quite clear what is happening. 1968 is a year of international revolution no less than 1789, 1830, 1848, 1917 and 1936'. Militants with Black Dwarf in their hands were to be seen conferring about what did actually happen in 1830.
Labels: Marxism, socialism