Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Chris Harman (1942-2009)

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
Alex Callinicos, 'Obituary: Chris Harman, 1942-2009'
John Molyneux, Obituary from The Independent (see also a longer version here)
Michael Rosen, Obituary in the Guardian
Ian Birchall 'Chris Harman: a life in the struggle'
John Rose, 'Chris Harman's ideas were forged in the heat of the struggles of 1968'
Joseph Choonara, 'Another Side of Chris Harman'
Andy Durgan 'A whiff of teargas'
Larry Elliott '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
David Widgery, Chris Harman on Ho Chi Minh, 1969
Socialist Review, Tribute (see also Mary Phillips)
Lenin's Tomb, 'Chris Harman RIP'
Kieran Allen, for the Irish SWP
Panos Garganas, for SEK (Greece)
Choi Il-Bung, for All Together (South Korea)
François Coustal and Dominique Angelini, for the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in France, 'Hommage a Chris Harman'
Graham Turner on Zombie Capitalism
Keith Flett, for the London Socialist Historian's Group
En Lucha (Spain), Tribute (in Spanish).
Marx21, Tribute (in German)
Ian Rintoul, for Solidarity (Australia), Tribute
Shannon Price 'Ideas for Revolution in the 21st century'
Alan Maass, 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)
Socialist Unity, 'RIP Chris Harman'
Sandra Bloodworth, for Socialist Alternative (Australia), 'Chris Harman's death a tragic loss for socialist movement'
Splintered Sunrise, 'Fixed and Consequent'
Andy Wilson, '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.

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At 7:42 pm, Blogger Colin F said...

Thanks for that. I agree with every word. I first met Chris in 1967 at the LSE. It is difficult to imagine opening a copy of Socialist Review or International Socialism without first turning to Chris's latest - and admirably pertinent - article. My main regret is never having got to know him as a person - surely he had a human side that it was quite difficult to perceive from a casual encounter.

Here's a short contribution from me in French and a longer tribute by John Mullen of Marxistes Unitaires in France : http://le-nouveau-poireau-rouge.blogspot.com/2009/11/chris-harman-1942-2009.html

At 9:39 pm, Anonymous johng said...

great tribute. One small correction. I understand that Chris thought Peter Gowan misremembered the meeting which he was annoyed by (its a small part of grief that I'll never be able to twit him about this), and that it was not Castro he was criticising but Mao.

At 2:25 pm, Blogger scribbles said...

It's a great loss, personally for many and politically for many more. A brave and redoubtable presence, and a voice that was heard internationally - I myself knew him slightly, and wish I could have got to know him better. He'll be missed.

At 11:44 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Indeed, thank you for such a cool obit. I've only recently discovered Harman and your obit helps me to appreciate his contributions to the struggle for freedom.


At 1:36 pm, Anonymous Matthew Caygill said...

Thanks for this warm and very appropriate obituary.

A small correction - I don't think Chris could have been a student of Miliband at Leeds. Chris was in Leeds much earlier in the 60s - one of my colleagues knew him back then; Miliband arrived much later. Their paths nust have passed at the LSE.

I am still immensely in debt to Chris's intellectual and political contribution and leadership, practically and in writing. I've had increasing disagreements with Chris since the early 1990s, but he was always a clear benchmark in any disagreement.

We must all hope that his work will be continued.

At 2:40 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Thanks people - and for the corrections, John and Matthew - though this was not really a pretence at an obituary - more just some random initial thoughts.

I once asked Chris about his time at Leeds Uni, but clearly forgot the details of him and Miliband. It might be noted - particularly given the careerism of Miliband's sons - that when Chris abandoned his thesis in 1968 to become a 'professional revolutionary', Miliband could understand and was supportive of this decision - a testament to Miliband's Marxism.

I did ask Chris whether he met EP Thompson, who was teaching in part of Leeds Uni while writing The Making of the Working Class - I think Chris said he 'saw him once wandering around'. As I think John Palmer noted in the comments over at Lenin's Tomb, Chris used to invite up 'big name' left wing intellectuals (including for example CLR James in about 1963) to speak at International Socialism meetings at Leeds Uni in the early 1960s.

At 3:24 pm, Blogger Colin F said...

Tribute by En lucha (Spain) http://www.enlucha.org/?q=node/1749

At 4:28 am, Anonymous Michael Douglas said...

Five things I will always be grateful to Chris Harman for;

(1) Writing How Marxism Works. This recruited me to Marxism.
(2) The front page of Socialist Worker “AUSTRIA RESISTS” after a mass anti-Nazi demonstration in defiance of Jorg Haider. This reminded me history had not ended and drew me back into activity.
(3) The front page of Socialist Worker “BITTER FRUIT OF US POLICY” after 9/11. I sold that paper on a street sale in North London the weekend after 9/11. The street was divided. But everyone had an opinion. Those two hours were perhaps the most political of my life.
(4) The speech he delivered in the small hall upstairs at Friends Meeting House in London to a hastily gathered 300 people a few days after 9/11. Row upon row of bearded young men and hijab wearing women fixed their eyes upon him at the front of the room. The atmosphere was charged. Nobody had seen Muslims at a socialist meeting before in such numbers. He spoke for half an hour outlining the history of US imperialism. By the end everyone in the room was thinking the same thing including me, namely, it is a wonder this tragedy has not happened sooner. This meeting laid the basis for the 2000 strong meeting at Friends soon after. Which launched the Stop The War Coalition. Which culminated in 35 million people demonstrating worldwide on 15 February 2003. This taught me the importance of the party as an organizer.
(5) The introduction to A Peoples History Of the World where he wrote;
“‘He who controls the past controls the future,’ is one of the slogans of the totalitarians who control the state in George Orwell’s novel 1984. It is a slogan always taken seriously by those living in the palaces and eating the banquets described in Brecht’s ‘Questions’.” To me this was like standing on top of a mountain and viewing human history clearly.

At 8:55 am, Blogger Colin F said...

This tribute in French by the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (NPA) : http://www.npa2009.org/content/hommage-%C3%A0-chris-harman

At 2:41 am, Anonymous Michael Douglas said...

More memories come back to me. I feel that I need to write them down.

Two dozen members gathered around Harman near a tube station prior to a mass anti-war demonstration in Hyde Park, London, circa 2002. He said, simply, “The average age of the Bolshevik party when they took power in 1917 was 18 years old. When we go out to recruit today, youth should be our focus. Youth are the key”.

A thousand strong weeknight meeting at Friends Meeting House, London. My eyes scan the audience and note that while most people are busy chatting loudly as they wait for the meeting to begin, Harman is engrossed in a book. No moment wasted. The self discipline.

That nerve shattering long march we took from Pizza di Kennedy at the end of the Genoa protests in 2001, to a suburb in the North, all the while fearing another attack by the Carabinieri, only to find at our rendezvous point that Harman had managed to get out in once piece also, and was sitting cool calm and collected in a café sipping some drink and chatting away as if he was on the Costa del Sol. See this we relaxed also, for the first time in days.

At 8:55 am, Anonymous Grim and Dim said...

The quote you give from Caute is from Widgery's "The Left in Britain 1956-68", a wonderful account of the period which should be made available again.
Chris was at Leeds 1961-64, then at the LSE. It was said, I think by Chris himself, that what was written of his PhD thesis was left on a tube train - I don't think he ever bothered to go to the lost property office. He held an academic post for one year in about 1969 at Enfield College of Technology (later part of Middlesex Poly/University), but he told me recently he had heard from Eric Robinson, the head of department who didn't renew his contract, and that he had told him he was glad he had not been accepted into the academnic world. His early pieces for International Socialism are on the MIA, but he also wrote frequently for Labour Worker before 1968, including a very fine piece on the Hungarian Revolution, which was in a sense the starting point for his work on Eastern Europe. He also wrote on the mining industry, but insisted on using a pseudonym "in case I ever meet a miner".
Earlier this year I recorded a two-hour interview with Chris about his memories of Tony Cliff, which had obviously a lot of autobiographical material about Chris, including his involvement in a New Left group in Watford while he was still at school, which was where he first met Cliff. I shall discuss with comrades whether and where this should be made available.

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At 12:58 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Michael - great memories - I also remember proudly selling SW with the headline 'Bitter fruit of US policy' on the streets that week - and I still remember an Asian taxi driver smiling and giving a huge thumbs up when he saw our front page as he drove by.

Ian - very glad you interviewed Chris - excellent (I sincerely hope someone properly interviews you at some point)- and yeah, I guessed it was from The Left in Britain (p341 to be precise) - I will put some of the stuff about Chris in there up on the blog when I get a moment.

Regarding the RSSF meeting, Widgery notes Harman's full quote is actually 'We have to be absolutely clear about this. We must be quite clear what's happening. 1968 is a year of international revolution no less than 1793, 1830, 1848, 1917 and 1936. We are experiencing the re-birth of the international Marxist movement after over thirty years of defeat and hibernation'.

As Widgery adds, 'Harman was widely respected as a Marxist intransigent. When he started evoking the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, the Barcelona uprising, he meant it'.

At 2:05 pm, Blogger Colin F said...

Tribute in German from the comrades of Marx21 http://marx21.de/content/view/859/32/

At 11:36 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Got this email.

Dear comrades,
You will, I am sure, have been shocked and saddened by Chris Harman’s death.As you know, Chris died in Egypt. This has created a difficult material problem for his family. In order to get Chris’s body home to England for the funeral, and to pay for the funeral costs, the family have to raise quite a large sum of money which they simply don’t have. It may be that you have already been approached about this, in which case my apologies. But if not, you would probably like to know that an emergency fund has been established to help bring Chris’s body back to England, and – when the coroner has then released it – to enable us all to meet together and hold a funeral for our lost comrade. Mike Simons’s bank account is being used for this purpose. The account name is Mr ML Simons Nat West Sort Code 60 04 24 Account Number 22663371. Don't forget to put your name as the payment reference. Money is always embarrassing. I’m told that something like £8,000 is needed. Donations to date have ranged from £50 to many times that. Please show this message to anyone you think might like to contribute. The matter is urgent.
In sorrow and comradeship
Colin Barker

At 9:52 am, Blogger Snowball said...

From another email...

Chris Harman’s funeral will be on Thursday 26th November. It will be held at 4pm at Golders Green Crematorium.

At 9:51 am, Anonymous big and tall suit said...

you would probably like to know that an emergency fund has been established to help bring Chris’s body back to England.


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