Category Archives: Marxism

Chris Harman, 1942-2009

Chris Harman, 1942-2009

A personal tribute by Alastair

(links at end of article)

It is with great sadness that I hear of the death of Chris Harman.

He died on the 6th November in Cairo. He was one of the most prominet Marxists in this country. He joined the International Socialists, the forerunner of today’s SWP, in the early 1960s and was to remain a leading member until his death. In his time he was editor of International Socialism Journal and Socialist Worker newspaper.

I am sure that over the next few days there will be many tributes to him in the blogosphere for in his forty plus years of militancy he made himself one of the most widely respected figures on the left. This is my tribute.

I cannot claim to have known him though I met him numerous times. Certainly he did not know me.

But looking back I have realised that his work has had more influence on my political development than I had ever really had cause to consider. and I am just one of many. This unsurprising given his stature an activist and thinker.

He was always one of my favourite writers and speakers. He was not it must be said a great orator. He lacked the rhetorical flourishes that so many embellish their speaking with. This was his strength though. He more than made up for these weaknesses with his enthusiasm and forensic argumentation. He always cut through straight to the heart of the matter and then applied his sharp analytical skills to it. There was nothing superfluous in what he said.

The first article I read in the first ISJ I bought, No. 37, was his Glasnost Before the Storm by him and Andy Zebrowski. His writings on the Soviet Union in the years of perestroika and the fall of the eastern bloc were among some of the best written. I think his analysis turned out to be a more realistic than most of the analysis produced by the left at the time which veered from dewy eyed optimism at the prospects of Gorbachev’s rule to paralysing depression at the collapse.

What I read probably contributed to my decision to study Russian at university and helped inoculate me against both the bourgeois triumphalasim and left wing retreat in that subject area.

His writings on the Eastern Bloc always had at their heart not just a analysis of the nature and structure of the soviet system but an unremitting focus on the fact that these were repressive societies that inevitably generated working class opposition to them. His Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe, first published in 1974 and later reissued as Class Struggle in Eastern Europe, is almost without peer on this subject.

His analytical powers on this area can be seen for instance in his 1977 articles on Poland which fairly accurately predicted the crisis that erupted in 1980-81 and which nearly unseated the regime.

Though monstrously oppressed by one-party police states when the workers moved they moved far and fast. In Europe in the post-war period only twice did genuine movements of workers councils as an alternative system state power appear, in Hungary in 1956 and Poland in 1981. The story he told of the incredible struggles fought by the workers of Eastern Europe and their incredible revolutionary potential have no better telling than in this work.

The Eastern bloc is starting to pass into historical memory as a generation is now reaching adulthood that were born after the fall. But the story of so-called “socialism” in the Eastern bloc is central to understanding the twentieth century and its fate key to understanding where the working class and left is today.

Another seminal work on revolutionary history was his magisterial history Germany: The Lost Revolution. It is another work that is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the history of socialism in the twentieth century.

But he didn’t just write such blockbusters. His pamphlet How Marxism Works is still to my mind the best short introduction to Marxist politics. It is another must-read for any young socialist.

These were among his works I read as a youngster. And while I was as university I also had the opportunity to read the entire back catalogue of old the series of International Socialism and the new series of the ISJ and the Socialist Review. He was a stalwart contributor to all these journals. It almost goes without saying that under his editorship Socialist Worker was probably the best paper on the left.

His last book was Zombie Capitalism, an analysis of the economic crisis.

He made a massive contribution to Marxist politics in this country. His literary output was prodigious. And all of it dedicated to the single task of developing Marxist thought and building a revolutionary organisation.

His loss is a great loss to the left in this country and internationally.

My condolences go out his partner, Talat, his family, friend and comrades.


For a selection of his articles try the Chris Harman section of the Marxist Internet Archive. These include his 1967 article How the Revolution Was Lost (later published as a much read pamphlet) and Party and Class (1968).

Also here are his two articles from 1977 on the Polish regimes crisis (part 1, part 2) and the two artices by him on Gramsci which were later published as the pamphlet Gramci Versus Reformism (part 1, part 2)

There are also numerous other articles by him in the old series of International Socialism, of which he was editor of for a time: 1958-68, 1969-74, 1975-78.

Many of his writings for the second series of the ISJ are also on-line and can be found in the ISJ index. (There are still a number of articles by him such as The Myth of Market Socialism which are excellent and I hope go on line in the future) The index is a bit complicated so here are some links to some of the more notable articles:

Base and superstructure (1986) (.doc)

The state and capitalism today, ISJ 51 (1991)

The Return of the National Question ISJ 56 (1992)

The prophet and the proletariat, ISJ 64 (1994)

Anti-capitalism: theory and practice
ISJ 88 (2000)

Engels and the origins of human society, ISJ 65 (1994)

From Bernstein to Blair: one hundred years of revisionism ISJ 67 (1995)

The Crisis of Bourgeois Economics ISJ 71 (1996)

Globalisation: A Critique of a new Orthodoxy, ISJ 73 (1996)

Anti-capitalism: theory and practice

Beyond the boom, ISJ 90 (2001)

Argentina: rebellion at the sharp end of the world crisis
, ISJ 94 (2002)

The workers of the world, ISJ 96 (2002)

Analysing Imperialism, ISJ 99 (2003)

And from the third series:

The rise of capitalism, ISJ 102

China’s economy and Europe’s crisis (2006)

From the credit crunch to the spectre of global crisis (2008)

The slump of the 1930s and the crisis today (2009)

To buy some of his major books such as Lost Revolution-Germany 1918-23, How Marxism Works, he Fire Last Time: 1968 And After, Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis And The Relevance Of Marx, go to the Bookmarks site and search “Chris Harman”

Class Struggles in Eastern Europe seems to be out of print you’ll have to try it here or here


Filed under Marxism

A Lenin for our times?

The disintegration of Social Democracy in Europe, both organizationally and as a political project, presents both opportunities and problems for socialists and revolutionaries.

The Labour Party in Britain, and Social Democratic parties elsewhere in Europe have politically dominated the working class and the the labour movement for a most of the last century. Where mass Communist Parties have existed, in countries such as Italy and France, they carried out the same function and became in the post-war period ideologically indistinguishable from the mass Social Democratic parties.

These parties, have in times of crisis, have been the greatest bulwark against radical change. Their demise the greatest opportunity for real socialist ideas to connect with the working class for a long, long time.

The responsibility on the left to carry out this task tough is a great one, but it presents a whole host new problems. It is a new turn in the class struggle that will require a re-examination of our political traditions in order to navigate it.

There is nothing new in this. Every generation of Marxist faced with such a change in the conditions around them have had to go through such process. Lenin had to face up to the inadequacy of Social Democracy, Trotsky had to address the degeneration of “Communism”, and the new left of the sixties had to deal with both.

Ideas were brushed off and refashioned, or they were dumped; new theory had to be created where the old was no longer “fit for purpose.”

Paul Le Blanc has written a number of challenging books and articles on the Marxist revolutionary tradition and in particular the politics of Lenin and Luxembourg.

In the May June edition of the International Socialist Review there are articles by Paul Le Blanc, Lars Lih and Helen Scott based on a panel discussion held in New York in March of this year.

In it he mentions, quite appositely, that

Lenin’s Bolshevik organization was part of a broad global working-class formation, part of a developing labor movement, and part of an evolving labor-radical subculture that embraced masses of people. Much experience of the U.S. Left demonstrates that an effort to create such an organization outside of such a context all too often degenerates into the construction of a political sect, with well-meaning activists penned up in a world of their own, separate and apart from the working class.

The development of a broad, numerically significant layer and subculture of socially conscious people who are part of the working class is essential for creating the kind revolutionary party that Lenin helped build. The accumulation of a significant percentage of activists who are part of that layer is the precondition for such a party. This can’t simply be proclaimed by a handful of would-be Leninists

He has written a number of fascinating books such as Marx, Lenin, and the Revolutionary Experience, A Short History of the U.S. Working Class and Rosa Luxemburg: Reflections and Writings.

For more on him you could read an interview (including some very interesting remarks on religion and “secularism”) in the Monthly Review

Also in this round table discussion is a contribution by Lars Lih. He has written what looks like a fascinating book Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to be Done?’ in Context on the said work and Lenin in 1900-1901. A monumental amount of scholarship seems to have gone into its production. Coming in at some 880 pages he seems to have read just about everything pertaining to this period.

Lih tries to put What is to be done? into the context of its times, and the circumstances of its making.

Though it contained ideas which were to have a fundamental importance for the development of Marxism as a revolutionary theory and practice, its importance has been much exaggerated over the years, both by Stalinism, which wanted to turn the works of Lenin into some form of holy revelation, and by bourgeois thinkers looking for the original sin of Bolshevism.

It was of course neither of those things. But neither was it a recipe book for revolution, ”just add cadre”.

Watch this space for a review of it here.

In the meantime there is a review of it by John Molyneux at

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David Harvey’s course on “Capital”

Professor David Harvey, anthropologist and geographer at City University of New York, and author of such excellent books as a Brief History of Neoliberalism and The New Imperialism, is putting his course on reading Capital on line.

The first two lecture are up already.

Apparently it’s very good.

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Filed under Economics, Learn, Marxism