The working class intellectual and the apparat

James Turley offers an appreciation of the life of Chris Harman, 1942-2009

A prominent figure on the British far left for several decades, Chris Harman, has died aged 66. All that time, he was a member of a single organisation.

Perhaps remarkably, that organisation is the Socialist Workers Party - or its antecedents in the shape of the Socialist Review Group and International Socialists. This is an organisation prone to sharp shifts in political direction, and splits around those shifts. Harman lived through the bulk of this history as an active and enthusiastic participant, yet did not depart with any of the waves of splinter groups that litter the socialist political landscape today.

He first joined the SRG in the 1960s as a schoolboy. At that time, the line was in favour of full Labour Party entry; by 1970, it had moved away from Labour work and embraced a rank-and-filist workerism; by 1975, it had shifted from a previously fairly democratic internal culture to a bureaucratic-centralist ‘Leninism’; by 1980 the rank-and-filism of what was now the SWP was undermined by a new concern for anti-racism, feminism and other such things previously snootily dismissed as the concern of ‘people who should be in the International Marxist Group’ (the IMG was the British section of the Trotskyist Fourth International and was at its most influential in the late 70s).

Worse was to come - the announcement from guru Tony Cliff that the labour movement was in the midst of a “downturn” left the SWP cadre caught out by the 1984-85 miners’ strike, and disoriented within it. Variants of this policy continued until the late 1990s, characterised by a lurch toward the Seattle-generation ‘anti-globalisation’ movement. Chasing the movements brought the SWP to almost total immersion in anti-war work after 9/11 - a turn which the current leadership says came at the expense of the SWP’s own organisational health and also cost it dear in terms of any serious orientation to the working class.

After leaving school, Harman completed his degree at Leeds University. Pivotally, he followed it up with a PhD at the London School of Economics. At the time, the LSE was a critically important site of campus radicalism, and an inspiring environment for any young revolutionary. This was the time of the Paris événements, the Red Army Fraction, and a wave of anti-war sentiment not topped in the west until the recent catastrophe in Iraq. Students - provided they attended the right institutions - seemed to have the best view of the barricades.

Harman never finished his doctorate - he became, in 1968, a full-timer for the IS, a role he would fulfil in different ways for the rest of his life. He started out editing International Socialism (ISJ), and working as a journalist for the new Socialist Worker. At that time SW was edited by Roger Protz, a former Healyite (his editing skills are now put to productive use on The Good Beer Guide). Harman was later to be the longest-serving editor in the paper’s history, though in the early days the job was rotated somewhat - not least because of the constant series of splits, which claimed Protz among many others. In this period, he wrote Bureaucracy and revolution in eastern Europe (now republished as Class struggles in eastern Europe, 1945-1983), and extensive analysis of the eastern bloc from the point of view of Tony Cliff’s theory of state capitalism.

In many ways, Harman was unlucky to take up the SW reins when he did, first in 1975 and then in 1982. The IS had been heavily involved in the industrial struggles which swept across Britain in the early 1970s. Its rank-and-filist posture allowed it to recruit modestly but significantly, and it began to attract experienced class fighters. As these struggles weakened, however, Cliff announced a major change in the class struggle - the now infamous “downturn”, which entailed a retreat into propagandism and the kind of ‘inward-looking’ politics that would have today’s SWP leaders gasping with shock - had they not all been through this particular somersault themselves.

It is certainly true that after this time industrial struggles faded, and began to be defeated. It is possible for basic labour struggles to carry on at an intense pitch for many years, but not forever. Eventually, escalating disruption will force the issue - either the workers ‘get political’ in a serious way and address the question of state power or the capitalists beat them down. There is no shame, either, in concentrating on propaganda when this happens in order to retrench cadres and harden people for lean, demoralising times.

The difficulty with the Cliff/SWP version of the “downturn” is that it was too mechanistic. The fact that there is a downturn means that every event must be viewed myopically through its prism. This particular “downturn” was dated to 1978 (similar theses were advanced by the Eurocommunist Eric Hobsbawm at the time), but within the year there was the winter of discontent. Five years later, of course, there was the miners’ strike. It seemed to escape Cliff that the balance of class forces could shift suddenly as well as molecularly - there is no way a strike that lasts almost a year can have been doomed from the outset, yet the SWP was only able to emerge from its propagandism by embracing the most narrow form of economism.

It is this phase of the SWP’s history which was covered by Harman’s time at SW. He also produced extensive studies of the German Revolution (The lost revolution, 1982) and, later, political Islam (The prophet and the proletariat, 1994). Cliff demanded one more wrenching change out of him yet, however, with the anti-globalisation movement heralding a new global upturn in the guru’s mind. The reorientation to the anti-war milieu and political Islam in particular fell to his successor, the rather more philistine Chris Bambery; it is difficult to gauge how closely Harman identified with the Respect project, although later editions of The prophet and the proletariat included some telling changes to reflect the Rees leadership’s new, more positive view of Islamism.

Harman’s most significant contribution to the life of the SWP and the British left beyond came in his writings. These include, as we have seen, extensive historical studies, notably of the 1918-23 revolutionary period in Germany, and detailed analyses of the Stalinist countries. At different times, he was called upon to be political economist, anthropologist, historian and more - and with disciplined research and lucid writing, he more or less stepped up to the mark each time.

‘Called upon’ not by History, or the spontaneous whims of an erudite Marxist imagination, but by the interests of the SWP machine. It is impossible to discuss Harman’s legacy separate from that of the organisation he belonged to. Alex Callinicos himself admits: “He was interested in particular problems usually not for their own sake but in order to address political arguments” (Socialist Worker November 14). For all his often-valuable work, then, it is difficult to find anything like a slant on something genuinely new within Marxist theory. Harman was a Cliffite to the marrow - some of his most extensive researches amount to evidentiary appendices to Cliff’s State capitalism in Russia; others (the anthropology, particularly) were embedded in internal spats conducted dishonestly by the apparat.

Harman’s role in all this is not an unfamiliar one - that of the ‘red professor’, who is always ready to spin a yarn to justify the contingent decisions of the leadership. In this, he is in considerable company among communists - Ernest Mandel’s mind worked around the strategic shifts of the Fourth International, a host of WRP academics rendered Gerry Healy’s gibberings into Trotskyist jargon, and that is to say nothing of the countless Stalinist intellectuals working from the 1920s until the ‘official’ CPGB was liquidated, of whom Rajani Palme Dutt is the most prominent example.

Yet there is a paradox, highlighted if we compare him with his comrade and eulogist, Alex Callinicos. Callinicos is also a talented scholar; he has published widely, and well beyond the confines of the SWP press. He writes with lucidity and some originality (though not without flaws) on epistemology and economy, education and imperialism. Crucially, he more or less has his own research programme - he can write what he wants without interference from the (rest of the) central committee. Politically, meanwhile, he is the hack’s hack - he has gleefully flitted between contradictory political positions, repeatedly rotated allies, and his backroom manoeuvrings in the SWP’s split with its American sister organisation in 2001 earned him the Stateside nickname, ‘Stalinicos’.

Harman, as we have noted, was mostly concerned with direct or indirect interventions in the political life of the SWP. Yet while these interventions, to say the least, tend towards the winning side, it would be wrong to dismiss him entirely as a hack. In that rather obscure manner we now associate with the whispering war between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, it was suggested widely in the organisation that Harman, in his later years, differed significantly with the direction it was taking. Articles in International Socialism on popular fronts past - were they veiled criticisms of Respect? I have certainly heard people claim, conspiratorially, that they are on the ‘Harman side’ of the SWP. He embodies a contradiction - unquestioning fealty to the apparat, battling with the need to articulate differences somehow.

Finally, a personal note - it is always a difficult balancing act to write an obituary for a comrade in the movement whose views and practices differ vastly from one’s own. Recognition of that comradeship is a vital necessity, whose abandonment is the abandonment of solidarity; yet to ignore the political differences is its own betrayal.

For me, Chris Harman was not just any SWPer. His articles in ISJ were a serious advert for the ‘partyist’ left as I was beginning to reconsider anarchism; the general high quality of ISJ, then under his editorship, convinced me I was jumping ship to a more intellectually serious politics. But it could never be the politics of the SWP. It was frustrating to see Harman propping up those politics and the regime that sustained them - frustrating for giving tired dogmas and strategic stillbirths a vitality they did not deserve, and for quietly wasting the insight and effort of a serious working class intellectual.

His death is a great loss to our movement.