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)
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)
The Crisis of Bourgeois Economics ISJ 71 (1996)
Globalisation: A Critique of a new Orthodoxy, ISJ 73 (1996)
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
From the credit crunch to the spectre of global crisis (2008)
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”