The long march of Chris Harman

Submitted by dalcassian on 17 November, 2009 - 4:04 Author: Sean Matgamna

“Any man’s death diminishes me”... Indeed. So it is with the sudden death of Chris Harman, in Cairo, on the eve of his 67th birthday. He was the last of the old guard of the International Socialists to be in or close to the central leadership of the SWP, IS’s now distant descendant.

Chris Harman’s near-half-century of political activity encompassed most of the history of the organisation that, despite its recent decade of alliance with Islamic clerical fascism, remains the biggest ostensibly revolutionary organisation in Britain and retains influence in other countries.

Of course we offer his family our condolences. And therefore? Therefore praise Harman for what he had in common with all serious socialists? Therefore, submerge everything that was politically specific to Harman in his political life under a politically indifferent cry of humane dismay and lamentation at his death? Remember all the good you can — and forget about the rest of it?

Certainly, remember the good.

One outstandingly “good” episode long ago in Chris Harman’s political history deserves to be remembered. In 1969 a meeting was held in London to commemorate Ho Chi Minh, who had just died. All the left groups active in Vietnam solidarity work were represented, and IS by Chris Harman, sitting on the platform alongside the London representative of North Vietnam’s Stalinist government.

When his turn came to speak, Harman roundly denounced the Vietnamese Stalinists for having murdered hundreds of Trotskyists in the 1940s. It caused great scandal among the “anti-imperialism-first” would-be left of the time.

It was good work, and needed to be done. Harman’s speech then is not a bad model now for serious socialists faced with the sometimes demented “anti-imperialism-first” of the SWP.

Harman was also an ambitious writer, whose books include a “People’s History of the World”. That he spent his entire adult life promoting what he thought was revolutionary socialist politics is, to my mind, worthy of respect.

But “the rest of it”, in the case of this leader of the SWP, was enormous. And in politics “the rest of it”, and its political consequences, does not necessarily die with its author.

In his startling mix of ostentatious devotion to theoretical questions with devotion to an organisation for which “theory” exists only to rationalise whatever the organisation’s leaders think will best serve its interests, Chris Harman was, perhaps, the clearest embodiment of the fundamental mind of IS/SWP. He was, so to speak, the IS of IS and the SWP of the SWP.


Joining IS’s predecessor, the Socialist Review group, around 1962, when he was 20, Harman lived through the long march of the Cliff organisation, from being, for most of the 1960s, a very loose and loosely defined “Luxemburgist” group, heavily streaked with anarchism and rejecting Bolshevism as any sort of political model — all the way to the tight, heavily depoliticised, caricature-”Leninist”, pseudo-bolshevik machine-party it is now.

From rejecting and mocking, with priggish middle class disdain, the “orthodox Trotskyist” idea that a revolutionary organisation — or, in the first place, revolutionary nucleus — after the model of Bolshevism should be built in Britain, he went with the Cliff organisation — all the way to trying to build a “revolutionary party” as a machine-party that used virtually any “left” — and sometimes far from “left” — politics to feed off and grow.

He lived through the organisation’s evolution from being on principle heavily immersed in the Labour Party, and centrally concerned with the political development of the working class and its labour movement, measuring itself by its relationship to that — all the way towards seeing itself, “the party”, as the measure of all things, and the working-class movement as primarily a pool of potential recruits to “the party”.

From an organisation that made “anti-sectarianism” its badge of honour, and poured heartfelt and just contempt on “toy-town Bolshevik” sectarianism, — to an organisation that, as the battle against Thatcher opened up after 1979, sealed itself off, as in a diving bell, with the “theory of the downturn” (meaning that nothing in the way of working-class resistance or self-protection was possible but work for the self-sustainment of “the party”, the SWP).

He edited the paper, Socialist Worker, in which, two months into the year-long miners’ strike, Cliff, in the worst tradition of charlatan effrontery, wrote: “The miners’ strike is an extreme example of what we in the Socialist Workers Party have called the ‘downturn’ in the movement” (SW, 14 April 1984).

He lived through, and helped shape, the organisation’s evolution from being more or less open and democratic in its functioning — to its present rigidity and authoritarianism in structures and functioning.

He joined an organisation in which some effort was still being made to tackle the political problems of the post-World-War-Two world and of post-Trotsky “orthodox Trotskyism”, and in which there was still the working assumption that some of their theorising, on some questions at least, and specifically on imperialism and anti-imperialism, might have a prescriptive bearing on the political practice of the organisation. He lived to be a leading theorist in an organisation for which theorising, political formulas, political positions existed and were shifted, dropped, and picked up to serve the organisational needs of “the revolutionary party” — where Marxist theory was a mere handmaiden to its organisational concerns and appetites: development, growth, membership.

He joined an organisation one of whose central “positions” was that imperialism had come to an end — and lived to go with Tony Cliff, after 1987-8, into a politically all-else-devouring and in many of its implications, reactionary, “anti-imperialism”; an organisation that has not scrupled to ally with and champion the “anti-imperialism” of those Islamic ultra-reactionaries whom previously they had justly called “clerical fascists”.

Himself coming from some sort of Jewish background, he lived to move with the whole organisation from the 1950s and 1960s politics of Socialist Review and IS on the Middle East to today’s vicarious Arab or Islamic chauvinism.

He joined an organisation for which denunciation of Stalinist ani-semitism disguised as “anti-Zionism” was important; in which, though it criticised Israel severely the idea of advocating the conquest and subjugation of the Hebrew nation played no part, even as late as 1967. He travelled with his organisation to its presently dominant and all-shaping politics on the Middle East, in which “freedom for Palestine” functions as code for supporting the Arab and Islamic chauvinist programme of destroying the Jewish state.

By Chris Harman’s end the SWP had long expunged the central Leninist idea of what a revolutionary party’s primary role is — to educate, enlighten, and illuminate the working class on its place in society and its struggle with the bourgeoisie — and substituted for that educational work a sterile onanism of organisational self-promotion


Harman and many others learned from Tony Cliff, the leader of the IS/SWP organisation for the fifty years before his death in 2000, not only a certain theoretical framework for viewing Russia and China (that they were “state capitalist” systems), but also and more important a conception of what revolutionary politics is, of what a revolutionary party is, and of how to treat “theory” and political principle.

He learned from Cliff politics and “organisational politics” that were a hybrid or pastiche in which was combined the political approach of post-Trotsky “orthodox Trotskyism” and that of the Brandlerite-Lovestoneite “Right Comminoist” international of the 1930s, in one of whose groups (in Palestine) Tony Cliff had received his basic political education.

In IS-SWP the Lovestoneite elements came to predominate. decisively.

Harman learned that politics is organisation. Organisational self-promotion is everything. “The party” must be built by any politics that serve that end. Theory is rationalisation, not science and prescription. As Tony Cliff would openly say on the leading committees — in my hearing on the National Committee — “tactics contradict principles”.

A political principle is a principle, but an organisation advantage is tangible and far more useful, and therefore more important. For Tony Cliff, as the dominant figure, this meant that he could say and do what he liked in pursuit of an organisational advantage. For such as Chris Harman, it meant assuming “the servility of a theoretician” (Lenin’s expression) vis-a-vis the “party” apparatus.

In contrast to most of the other proponents of a theory to which they gave the “state capitalist” label, the Socialist Review/IS group drew very few political or organisational conclusions from its “insight”. That is, perhaps, the most striking aspect of the Socialist Review group in the 1950s. Politically it remained a dialect of post-Trotsky “orthodox Trotskyism”, with a doctrinal quirk.

For example, in its politics in relation to China, the Cliff group was nearly indistinguishable from the “orthodox Trotskyists”. Tony Cliff had by 1957 a theory of state capitalism for China. But that did not stop the group from being “defencist” for China, or from demanding that Hong Kong be handed over to the Mao government.

(In fact Cliff reached the conclusion that China was state capitalist by way of a radically different theory from the one according to which Russia was state-capitalist. Cliff explained "Chinese state capitalism" more in terms of China’s tradition of “Asiatic despotism” than, as in the USSR, the product of the defeat of a working-class revolution that had cleared the way for the Stalinist bureaucracy by eliminating the bourgeoisie.)


Harman was, in the early period anyway, to which my direct observation of his activity is limited, an undeviating supporter, always the political “good son” and understudy of the IS/SWP’s founder, Tony Cliff. Like an ancient ship, steering as close to the shore as possible, he watched and seconded Cliff.

For instance, when, in 1971, Tony Cliff decided that the best thing for IS was to go along with the reactionary “left” (Stalinist-rooted) chauvinist opposition to the European Union, changing the IS line by 180 degrees so that it could recruit workers for whom opposition to European unity under capitalism had become an article of faith, Cliff’s initial document had Chris Harman as co-author.

The International Socialists went through a crisis of political identity in 1968-9 when Cliff, who for a decade had been a self-proclaimed “Luxemburgist”, suddenly discovered the need to “Leninise” the organisation, that is, turn it from a federation into a “democratic centralist” group. Others of Harman’s political generation and political bent were disoriented.

Some had anticipated Cliff. Most of the best people at first tried to go beyond what Cliff at that stage wanted — a merely tightened-up organisation — and to take “Leninisation” seriously where for Cliff it was a new flag of convenience, a mere rationalisation for what he wanted in organisational terms, rather than a guide to what should and should not be done. For varying periods of time, they went into opposition.

Not Harman. He wrote an article on the Leninist “theory of the party”, staying very close to Cliff. To reconcile the different conceptions of the party in its leading layer around 1968-9, IS published a pamphlet with a timidly anti-Leninist piece from 1960 by Cliff; Harman’s “orthodox” Leninist piece; and another article by Duncan Hallas.

A liberal and pluralistic, rather than dogmatic and authoritarian, approach to political differences, you think?

But which theory was now guiding IS? The seemingly liberal and pluralistic, “pay your money and take your choice” pamphlet left the “apparatus” — dominated by Cliff for the next 30 years - free to do what it liked in terms of the “party” being built.

The multi-choice approach to the theory of the party left the organisation as an organisation with no clearly and openly defined political position to guide it. “Liberalism” served only to liberate the leadership to do what it liked. Anything that “worked”, for now, was good; anything that did not “work” immediately to build the organisation was bad. The combination of the seeming liberalism, and the liberation of the leadership from political restraint, was quintessential IS of that period.

Some of what Chris Harman wrote may in the long view be of use and value. But “theory” was one thing; practice something more or less separate and compartmentalised. For Harman, the shadow of Cliff — and then of others — always fell between his theory and the practice.

A 1971 document of the Trotskyist Tendency in IS (a predecessor of the AWL) described the dominant attitude in the IS leadership to what Marxist theory was for, like this:

“It is in this sense that IS has 'contempt for theory' — contempt for the Marxist conception of theory and its necessary relationship to the organisation as a leaven and tool of the whole group. The second and real sense in which IS has “contempt for theory” is in their use of theory, and [their conception of] the function of theory, the relationship of theory to practice: there is no connection between the two for IS. Do you know that in last week’s [mid-1971] debate on the Common Market at the NC Cliff said, and repeated, that principles and tactics contradict each other in real life!

"This is organically connected, of course, with their mandarinism... [IS theory] is an esoteric knowledge — for if principles contradict tactics and practice; if theory is not a practical and necessary tool; if theory and practice are related only in the sense that theory sums up (in one way or another) past practice, perhaps vivified with a coat of impressionistic paint distilled from what’s going on around at the time — but not in the sense that theory is the source of precepts to guide practice, to aid in the practical exploration of reality — why then, where is the incentive to spread theoretical knowledge?”

Harman grew into that system, where Marxist theory flew only in the evening, to rationalise what had already been decided empirically or “instinctively” (Tony Cliff’s instinct), rather than flying, so to speak, in the morning, to inform, illuminate and guide the organisation’s decisions. Theory did not guide practice; it cleaned up after it, and made excuses for what Tony Cliff and the “party” apparatus decided was best for the organisation to do and say in the interests of its own growth and development.

Harman’s role in the system was to provide — invariably, as far as I know — a sort of “orthodox”, “left”, “heavy theory” dialect of rationalisation for the party apparatus. He went along with whatever the organisation’s stronger leaders decided was best for the IS/SWP.

He went along with the one-sided “anti-imperialism” of Cliff and the others even to supporting against NATO the would-be genocidal Serb imperialism in Serbia’s colony, Kosova, in the 1999 war. He went along after Cliff’s death with the leading clique that led the orgainsation into an alliance with Islamic clerical fascism, and even into taking Abab/Islamic political money.

There were some faint indications (that is, gossip) that Harman was not entirely happy with the debauch of vicarious Islamic-fundamentalist “anti-imperialism” in which the organisation wallowed for most of his last decade. Inside the organisation, did he indict those responsible, or even criticise them with the necessary severity and condemnation? There was no public indication of it.

In the pages of Socialist Worker, which he edited until 2004, Harman played his habitual public role as rationaliser for whatever the organisation did by “explaining away” even the vile anti-woman practices of the Taliban in Afghanistan, that season’s champion “anti-imperialists”: see Socialist Worker of 6 October 2001.


In a discussion he and I had, in 1969 perhaps, Harman startled me with his response to my argument that the true measure of Tony Cliff’s book on Russian Stalinism was its chapter on Trotsky’s work on Russia, which was unserious in its presentation of Trotsky’s ideas, trifling, shallow, disloyal, and in general “shoddy”. He replied: “Of course it’s shoddy”.

The implication I took from that was that he intended, or hoped, to improve on such work, believing its fundamentals to be correct. If he did, it was all a matter of compartmentalised “theory”.

Chris Harman and his comrades created an organisation which, in the last decade of Harman’s life, did for other forms of reactionary anti-imperialism, most importantly for Islamic clerical fascism, what the worst and the most Stalino-philic of the “orthodox Trotskyists” did for Stalinism.

The fundamental political tragedy of Harman, and others of his generation, is that they embarked upon a project of building a revolutionary party with false ideas about the nature of such a party — of what the relation of theory and practice is for a Leninist organisation. Of what the prime function of such an organisation is, namely, the political education of the working class and labour movement. They substituted for this basic Lenin-Trotsky conception an eclectic rag-bag of SWP organisational self-promotion, seizing hold of whatever political “positions” its leaders thought would, at the moment, best help its organisational central concerns.

The rest followed, inexorably.

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