Fixed and consequent

chrisharman

For the last week or so I’ve been turning over some thoughts about the passing of Chris Harman in my head, trying to get a clearer picture. There’s no doubt of course that Chris’ sudden death leaves an enormous hole in the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party; beyond that, it’s a loss to the entire left, which is not overburdened with people like Chris. And, although I was never personally close to Chris – even had I had more contact with him, he wasn’t the easiest person to get close to – it’s almost like losing a member of the family. Cliff was Cliff and was uniquely unique, but for many of us Chris was arguably more important in shaping our ideas.

Some random impressions. I have in my head going to a smallish meeting in a dank room above a pub in a provincial town, and seeing at the head of the room an unprepossessing figure who reminded me for some unaccountable reason of Bob Ross, mumbling about the Permanent Arms Economy. The last time I saw Chris was in a more salubrious venue at a conference in London, where he was speaking on revolutionary politics in the 1970s, and got through around 45 minutes without notes – something that annoys me intensely in some speakers, but I was willing to forgive in Chris. His speaking style was as unflashy as his writing style – the nearest thing to a tic was his tendency to quote Dylan lyrics, which was slightly odd as I had him pegged as more of a Herman’s Hermits man – but there was enough there in terms of concentrated ideas to hold your attention from start to finish.

Everyone seemed to have a Chris Harman story, often centring around his lack of social skills, but that wasn’t necessarily unkind. I can’t remember encountering anyone who was more consistently left brain in the way he operated. If he wasn’t the hail-fellow-well-met type, nor was he one of those pocket Lenins who would throw a hissy fit when crossed – far from being puffed up with his own importance, he was probably excessively modest. At SWP parties, Chris was invariably to be found in the kitchen, immersed in a conversation about profit margins in the natural gas industry or some such. (This is where I suspect my memory. I vividly recall the stereo playing “Wham Rap!”, but that just can’t be. It was probably the Specials.) Sometimes you would try to talk to him and he would stare through you as if you weren’t there; sometimes he would accost you out of nowhere, and without any small talk ask how your Russian was these days and whether you could look him out such and such an article.

His writing was the thing that will outlast him. Much of his material was first-rate. I particularly liked Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe, and The Lost Revolution on post-WW1 Germany. The Fire Last Time was, for my money, the best single overview of the movement of 1968. I wasn’t quite so keen on his People’s History of the World, although it’s proved enduringly popular, but then my preference in history is for the focused and specialist. This is why Chris, though he certainly had the brains to be a successful academic, didn’t have the temperament for it. The People’s History shows the polymathic sweep of his interests – there was literally nothing in human experience that was alien to him. To put it another way, Richard Evans has written a whole series of brilliant books on German history, but I suspect he would look at you funny if you asked him to write something on mediaeval China – the norm amongst academics is to devote years to mastering their patch. Chris didn’t have a patch, or rather his patch covered everything. That’s why party comrades, sometimes mockingly and sometimes affectionately, knew him as the Renaissance Man – if you wanted a plausible Marxist analysis of the most obscure historical or theoretical issue, Chris was the man to go to.

Ideologically, he had a reputation for picking up Cliff’s ball and running with it, although some of his work – notably on state capitalism – ran almost entirely on a different track. He was also, after Kidron’s departure, the only man left with both the ability and inclination to do book-length studies of political economy. (In fact, it’s hard to think of anyone on the Anglophone left who still does that.) But his real forte was as an educator of generations of radicals, and as a populariser of Marxist ideas. Yes, he spent nigh on thirty years editing Socialist Worker, and he was the author of the popular primers How Marxism Works and Economics of the Madhouse. Mind you, I found him most appealing as an essayist. His long-running column in Socialist Review always provided you with some food for thought. And there was some truly excellent Harman material in the ISJ. One thinks of the economic articles that were collected into Explaining the Crisis, or his debate on political Islam with Phil Marfleet, his side of which was published as The Prophet and the Proletariat.

That’s why I felt, when Chris took over the editorship of the ISJ a few years back, it was as if he had come home – that’s where he should have been all along. The journal these days is much more accessible, and though it’s still very much a party journal it’s much more open in terms of contributions, which reflects Chris’ willingness to argue the toss with anyone. From a personal point of view, it’s much improved from the days when it was all 60-page essays on the Russian Revolution from the same handful of people – hopefully the quality can be kept up, which places a responsibility on the co-thinkers Chris had gathered around him on the editorial board.

There is a further aspect of Chris I want to touch on, which is his approach to Leninism. “Party and Class” is not an unproblematic essay, especially in the way it casts centralism as ontologically superior to democracy in the DC formula, but it does contain the extremely important insight that the only guarantee against a capricious leadership is an educated, assertive and combative membership keeping the leadership in line. This insight was, I fear, lost on some of the younger leaders, who seem far too keen on the idea of a priestly caste of leaders keeping the membership in line. It was also obscured by Chris’ own behaviour at times. Not that he was the 100% personal supporter of Cliff often assumed – they did have their arguments – but after the splits of the 1970s Chris, along with Cliff and Duncan and others, was involved in the tacit agreement that the CC should keep all its disagreements internal and never ever appear disunited in front of the membership. This was inevitably going to stultify the organisation – as even Alex Callinicos has admitted, even if you think the leadership has mostly been correct, two contested elections in thirty years is not healthy. One might add other features – for instance, the control commission may at some time have rejected a CC disciplinary measure, but nobody seems able to remember such an event.

This early insight comes into play in terms of the debates in the party over the past year or so. Chris remarked – and I don’t at all believe he was being disingenuous – on how frustrating he found it to write an article that he hoped would kickstart a debate, only to find that nobody was willing to take issue with it. The key point about the debate around the Respect split – and this is something that Swiss Toni’s amazingly factional obit fails to understand – is not that some people raised weaknesses in John Rees’ modus operandi. (Chris, having opposed Rees’ promotion to the CC in the first place, could have claimed some moral capital, although that was slightly diminished by the articles he’d written supporting John and Lindsey’s brainstorms in the interim.) The point was that the split exposed systematic deficiencies in the party’s culture and processes, and these were what had allowed Rees to do what he did – I would go further and say that they encouraged the less healthy aspects of Rees’ character to come to the fore. And so, although I have serious doubts about the “democratic renewal” process in the SWP, one felt much more optimistic about it knowing that Chris was involved.

And this, I think, illustrates something important about Chris and the genuine respect in which he was held. The fact that Chris was never an oppositionist didn’t stop many comrades identifying themselves, effectively, as Harmanites. At various points when the leadership seemed to be going mad, Chris would write these articles that may have simply been assertions of orthodox IS politics, and may well not have been intended as shots across anyone’s bows, but were often read as such. It’s likely that on many – perhaps most – such occasions people were inflating minor differences in emphasis into something more significant. But there is something to be said about the appeal Chris held for the sceptical or disgruntled. There are people in the SWP, frankly, whose support the leadership will never have to worry about because they will support anything that comes out of the leadership. The party has always found it difficult to accommodate those with an independent cast of mind. That for those people Chris would be a touchstone of all that was thoughtful, sensible, sane and Marxist about the SWP – that may not be a tribute he would have sought, but it’s a good enough indication of what he meant to many people.

Rud eile: Edward Woodward, another good bloke, has died. Fondly remembered from Callan, The Tranquilliser, and of course the brilliant Wicker Man. More from Madam Miaow, Harpy, Garibaldy and Jim.

Rud eile fós: At the risk of this turning into obits corner, I just want to mention the passing at the age of 95 of HH Patriarch Pavle, a man of peace and stalwart opponent of injustice and the abuse of power. Neka mu je večna slava i hvala.

35 Comments

  1. ejh said,

    November 16, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    I didn’t like The Fire Last Time all that much – as I recall I thought it was one of those books where the argument isn’t all that convincing unless you already agree with it. One of those books which should either have been longer or shorter, if you follow me, either just putting the argument or engaging at greater length with objections to it. But the latter at least would have been the sort of work he probably didn’t have the time to write.

    I wrote in a comments box on Lenin’s Tomb that reading Class Struggles in Eastern Europe (which of course was an updated Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe) during the miners’ strike effectively changed my life in a number of ways. At this juncture it’s hard to say whether that was because it was all that good or because it was what I was looking for at that particular time of life and in my particular circumstances, but whatever the truth, it did, just as Le Guin’s The Dispossessed did a few years earlier. These days I tend to think that really goods Marxist thinkers shouldn’t try to constrict themselves by adhering to narrowly-defined analyses and interpretations of other people’s work, but I don’t know that in this instance it did too much harm to the man’s thinking – only, perhaps, his effectiveness. He probably did have no social skills but I don’t care about, because neither do I, and I’m very sorry to see him gone.

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    November 16, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    So am I, considering how much productivity he still had in him – I genuinely think the ISJ improved no end these last few years – and also because of who he was. There were people who didn’t like him, but the respect for him was real and totally deserved.

    I know what you mean about the right book at the right time. In retrospect, I don’t find Cliff’s State Capitalism very convincing, but at the time I discovered it, it seemed to make sense of a lot of things.

  3. Mark P said,

    November 16, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    A particularly shouty Irish Marxism some years ago was the first time I heard him speak. I’d read some of his stuff and knew he was a big wheel in the British SWP so I was expecting him to a rather more gripping public speaker than he was. The actual content of his speech was a good deal more grounded and sophisticated than that of most of the abler speakers he was sharing a platform with however.

    As for Allen’s obituary, well those last few lines were a bit crass weren’t they?

  4. Kent said,

    November 16, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    Shortly after I dropped out of the ISO (in the US) I spent an evening drinking with Chris Harman and a few of the comrades in Brooklyn Heights. Arguing with Chris about the prospects for a revolutionary organization in the U.S. with the lower Manhattan skyline in the background was quite dramatic. He was exceptionally good natured about my reluctance to jump back into sectarian waters, and we ended the evening on a friendly note. He struck me at the time as a real human being. A similar sort of evening with Alex C. would have been painful.

  5. ejh said,

    November 16, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    I have to say that the term “profound understanding of the dialectic” probably ought not to come without a custard pie, or at least some sort of funny noise like the one in DOA.

    He wasn’t much of a speaker, I didn’t think, but it’s not as if everybody has to be. People should do fewer things, more slowly – they’d contribute more.

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    November 16, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    Better slower but better? I know I pull Alex’s leg, but I’ve long thought he writes far too much, and if he was a bit less prolific it would help the quality. The same applies to Chomsky, although at least he has Barsamian as his Boswell.

    You don’t have to be good at everything. I’ve known people who could deliver a brilliant stump speech but couldn’t write an article to save their lives, and vice versa. That’s fine. I also feel Cliff would have been a more entertaining writer had he not been rendered into proper English. But not necessarily easier to follow.

  7. Ken MacLeod said,

    November 17, 2009 at 10:56 am

    My one personal encounter with Harman was after an SWP public meeting in 1991 on – guess what? – Russia. On the way to the pub afterwards I said something like, ‘It sounds like an awful thing to say, but didn’t the Bolsheviks bring a lot of their problems on themselves, through war communism and food requisitioning?’

    Harman gave me a long patient explanation, citing among other sources the work of Norman Stone on supply conditions all along the Eastern front, of how the Russian economy was breaking down catastrophically regardless of what the Bolsheviks did. I don’t remember the explanation, but I remember the patience.

  8. Solomon Hughes said,

    November 17, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    Let’s get to the real issue – I think it is perfectly possible that Wham Rap was playing, what with its “hard times chic” . Humming along to “wham! Bam! I am a man. Job or no job you can’t tell me that I’m not” with a right to work sticker on yr donkey jacket in a left wing kitchen seems reasonably likely. Personally I thought “Fire Last Time ” was tremendous, sad to see him go.

  9. Andy Newman said,

    November 17, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    have you sen this..

    Belfast SWP expelled: http://www.indymedia.ie/article/94807

  10. splinteredsunrise said,

    November 17, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    I have now. Thanks, Andy. I know there were rumours that something was in the pipeline, and I also know that Donal Mac F had been spotted around town, so certainly that bit checks out. I was slightly sceptical about this to begin with, and we’ll still need to wait and see if anyone involved has anything to say for themselves. My guess is that the numbers involved are pretty small, but then it’s a small organisation.

  11. Mark P said,

    November 17, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    The best evidence for is the fact that nobody has denied it. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect someone to pretty vigorously deny if it was made up. The best evidence against is that nobody has come out and openly confirmed it.

  12. Frankly Mr. Shankly said,

    November 17, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    I’m bemused to the role of the ‘American academic’ as he denies to anyone who will listen that he is an SWP member at all. Strangely enough the profile of Kieran Allen is higher than it’s ever been. He addressed the ISME conference, of all things last week.

  13. splinteredsunrise said,

    November 17, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    Building big around prominent individuals? I thought that went out of fashion with Respect.

  14. Mark P said,

    November 18, 2009 at 11:27 am

    A contribution to that indymedia discussion from Gino Kenny, one of the SWP members who is a PBP councillor and who should be in a position to know, seems to confirm the central thrust of the story at least.

  15. splinteredsunrise said,

    November 18, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    If Gino says it’s true then it is. I was asking around and a couple of sources were pointing in that direction. Probably more on this later.

    • Mark P said,

      November 18, 2009 at 4:41 pm

      You tease.

  16. johng said,

    November 18, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    Nice Obit. But is this really ‘amazingly factional’:

    “That’s same dialectic led Chris in the last years of his life to blow the whistle on the difficulties that the British SWP experienced after trying to found a radical left via the Respect project. The argument that he and the current leadership of the SWP instituted was for a real return to party building, for a new focus on working class struggles and for a greater opening to full debate and discussion inside revolutionary organisations. And all the while doing this without turning inward to a defensive mode but building a new revolutionary cadre though looking outwards in non-dogmatic ways”

    As you note that problems were wider then simply a section of the leadership is generally accepted now.

  17. Mark P said,

    November 18, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    Well, John, it’s pretty clearly portrays the current British factional squabble as Harman’s last great fight, so to speak. And the implication is that those who honour his memory should continue to prosecute that struggle.

    “Amazingly factional” might be overstating it, but it is a bit crass in my view.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      November 18, 2009 at 6:17 pm

      Well, I’m not amazed that it was somewhat factional. It was just that, as Kieran had known Chris for decades, you might have expected something more personal than “he wrote some great books and he didn’t like John Rees very much”.

      • skidmarx said,

        November 19, 2009 at 10:42 am

        Is that the obit that doesn’t actually mention John Rees? When the same discussion wa had at AVPS I wondered if I’d read the same text.

  18. Snowball said,

    November 18, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    Insightful obit. I have put up Widgery’s account of Chris Harman’s 1969 intervention at the VSC online if people are interested here

  19. Party hack said,

    November 18, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    Any plans to attend this weekend’s Marxism SS? The line up is interesting in terms of the amount of non-party academics they have speaking, never something there was much of in the late 80s/early 90s.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      November 18, 2009 at 9:40 pm

      I didn’t realise it was even on. Had I been in Dublin I might have been tempted to look in, but unfortunately have a prior engagement in the north.

  20. ejh said,

    November 18, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    I’m sure that’s not the bit I wsa thinking of in the other thread, which I’m sure had Harman addressing and LSE students’ meeting with a moped helmet in his hand. (How would a moped helmet differ from a motorcyle helmet?)

    as Kieran had known Chris for decades, you might have expected something more personal than “he wrote some great books and he didn’t like John Rees very much”.

    Well yes, but only in the same way that you might have expected people not to divert a previously interesting discussion of Chris Harman into a “look who’s been expelled from the SWP” discussion, i.e. you wouldn’t. You’d like to but you wouldn’t.

  21. Michael O'Brien said,

    November 19, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    I was looking through the various obits for Chris Harman and I could not find anything from his former ISJ colleague Peter Binns. Can anybody recall the circumstances leading to Peter Binns parting company with the SWP after all he was quite prominant during the 1980s

  22. skidmarx said,

    November 19, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    Motorcycle helmets are more encompassing.

    I actually liked The Fire Last Time,but found The People’s History Of The World an effort to get through. Perhaps my attention span had reduced in the interim.

  23. prianikoff said,

    November 19, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    Department of slightly weird coincidences;
    Both Chris Harman and Richard Yates, the author of “Revolutionary Road”, died on November 7th, aged 66.

  24. November 20, 2009 at 11:13 am

    [...] One more for Chris Harman To add to the obits mentioned here, one from Splintered Sunrise. [...]

  25. November 21, 2009 at 4:49 am

    It’s a real shame to lose Harman. I agree, SS, the quality of the ISJ has been consistently on the up; pretty much since Northern Rock I would tentatively suggest. Choonara’s article over the summer was very good.

  26. Binh said,

    November 24, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    Like I said at Lenin’s Tomb, this is the biggest loss for the socialist left since Camejo died in the U.S.

    I rather liked books like Economics of the Madhouse and a People’s History of the World. They made Marxist economics and world history comprehensible for the average person. And I do agree the ISJ got a lot better when he was at the helm.

    Any word on what caused his cardiac arrest?

  27. Mark Victorystooge said,

    November 28, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    These things can strike out of the blue, with no warning, though often a stressful event can trigger it. Special stress need not exist. It can just happen, with greater likelihood the older you get.

  28. Brea said,

    December 16, 2009 at 3:05 am

    I fear for the civilized world: http://www.maolovesyou.com

  29. December 19, 2009 at 9:25 am

    [...] The other review which persuaded me to purchase some books was the fitting epitaphios given by Splinty on the oeuvre of the late, justly lamented Chris [...]

  30. December 31, 2009 at 9:13 am

    [...] read for reasoned judgments on the activities of the Socialist Workers’ Party and some of the weird things that seem to go on in that organisation. I wouldn’t say I agree with all of [...]

  31. January 20, 2010 at 11:45 pm

    [...] Lost Revolution: the Intercontinental Reggie and his malcontents The fall of the House of Paisley Fixed and consequent That would be an ecumenical matter No sex please, I’m the commissioning editor for [...]


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