Chris Harman: Editor of 'Socialist Worker' whose intellectual stature gave him an influence beyond party ranks
Thursday 19 November 2009
Chris Harman, editor of International Socialism Journal and, before that, of Socialist Worker, and a leading figure in the Socialist Workers Party for more than four decades, has died in Cairo of a heart attack. This was all the more shocking because it was so unexpected.
Harman radicalised while still at school, and was an active socialist even before he went to Leeds University in 1962. By the time he arrived to do a PhD at the LSE in 1965 he was already a force on the left and writing for International Socialism. At the LSE he played a key role in the Socialist Society which, in turn, led the LSE sit-ins that helped trigger the whole British student movement of that time.
His commitment to political activity never weakened. Over the years he could be seen at countless meetings, rallies and demos and he died only hours after speaking at a conference of Egyptian socialist activists. His main contribution to the socialist cause he served all his life was as a writer and theorist, but like Marx he thought, "Philosophers have interpreted the world; the point is to change it", and everything he wrote was part of the project of building a revolutionary workers' organisation, the SWP.
As his long editorship of Socialist Worker (1982-2004) showed, Harman was always a party man, fiercely loyal to the SWP, but his intellectual stature was such that he always had an influence beyond party ranks. Everyone on the left who was serious about the Marxist analysis of the contemporary world had to take Harman seriously. At the time of his death he was, in my opinion, the foremost Marxist theorist in the world. To justify that claim here is a brief summary of his most important intellectual contributions.
First, his ongoing analysis of Russia and Eastern Europe. He adopted from Tony Cliff the view that these societies were not socialist but state capitalist and applied this analysis to the Stalinist regimes in the period of their decline. In 1967 he wrote Russia: How the Revolution was Lost, explaining the rise of Stalin in Marxist terms, and in 1970 produced the exceptionally prescient Prospects for the Seventies: the Stalinist States which accurately diagnosed their underlying economic weakness and foresaw their fall. This was followed by Class Struggles in Eastern Europe, on workers' revolts against Stalinism, and then by a series of brilliant articles analysing Gorbachev, glasnost and perestroika as they happened, which steered the SWP and its international partners through the rocky waters of 1989-91 that disoriented and demoralised so many on the left.
Then there were three major works of history. The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-23 (1982) dealt with one of the most important but lesser known episodes of modern history, the five years after the First World War when Germany was far closer to socialism than to fascism, and when a successful revolution would have forestalled both Hitler and Stalin. The Fire Last Time – 1968 and after (1988) was a masterly analysis of all those struggles which had shaped Chris in his youth – the US black revolt, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the student revolt, May '68, the invasion of Czechoslovakia and so on. Of the many books written on that time this is by far the best.
However, A People's History of the World (1999) is in a league of its own. To have condensed the history of humanity into 700 pages without dumbing down is feat enough but the book's centrepiece is an original analysis of the rise of capitalism which presents the first fully international account and theory of the system's historical genesis.
Most important of all has been Harman's relentless critique of the world capitalist economy, from the popular booklet The Economics of the Madhouse to the superb synthesis of theory and evidence that characterised his main economic works, Explaining the Crisis (1984) and Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx (2009). Whenever capitalism enjoys a period of prosperity its supporters claim that the spectre of crisis has been exorcised. Harman never countenanced this. He insisted that sooner or later boom would turn to slump, and could claim that the eruption in 2008 of the worst crisis since the Thirties vindicated his arguments. Recently he integrated into his economic analysis the threat posed by climate change and how this would sharpen the struggles engendered by the crisis.
These major interventions were accompanied by a ceaseless stream of articles on everything from philosophy to riots. Frequently these would prove to be of central strategic importance. Such was The Prophet and the Proletariat (1994), crucial in pioneering an analysis of political Islam even before 9/11, and thus preparing socialists to combat war and islamophobia.
To write of Chris Harman the private person is less easy because of his deep shyness but sometimes, in the company of friends and after a few pints, the reserve would slip. He was a kind and decent man who never gave a thought to personal advancement.
His family and friends will feel his loss most acutely. Politically it will be shared by revolutionary socialists and Marxists across the world. Nevertheless we retain the example of his unswerving commitment and his rich theoretical legacy, and that we can celebrate.
Christopher Harman, writer, journalist and political activist: born 8 November 1942; partner to Talat Ahmed (one son, one duaghter); died 7 November 2009.
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