In this obituary to British Marxist Chris Harman, Ernest Price outlines some of his key contributions, which will help guide revolutionaries for generations to comeOn November 7 the International Socialist Tendency (of which Solidarity is a member) lost one of its leading thinkers and activists when Chris Harman passed away in Cairo, one day shy of his 67th birthday.
Harman, editor of International Socialism and a leading member of Britain’s Socialist Workers Party (SWP), has left a considerable legacy for Marxists and the left.
Harman cut his political teeth in the British student movement of the mid 1960s, when he studied at Leeds University and the London School of Economics (LSE).
While studying an unfinished PhD at LSE, Harman rose to prominence on the British left, as a leader of the International Socialists (the precursor to the SWP) and of the sit-in movement. Here Harman refined what was to be a lifelong political practice—combining serious theoretical work with testing these ideas in contemporary struggle. In this vein, he edited the newspaper of the SWP, Socialist Worker, from 1982 until 2004.
Harman’s political contributions spanned a vast range of topics. Perhaps the most developed were his contributions on economics. His masterpieces include The Economics of the Madhouse, Explaining the Crisis and his explanation of the current epoch of crisis, Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx.
He distilled crucial lessons from a number of detailed historical studies including Russia: How the Revolution was Lost, Class Struggles in Eastern Europe, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918 to 1923 and A People’s History of the World.
Alongside these lengthy theoretical contributions, Harman made a number of crucial and timely political interventions that proved to be of ongoing importance. Two of these, “Party and Class” and “The Prophet and the Proletariat”, retain a particular significance for the Left worldwide.
Party and Class
Harman’s “Party and Class” was first published in volume 35 of the first series of International Socialism in the European winter of 1968-1969. Written in the context of major social struggles breaking out across Europe, Harman’s essay makes the case for the revolutionary party.
He begins by outlining the nature of social democratic (or reformist) parties. Harman explains that the social democratic party seeks to represent the working class through elections. It is quite unwilling to challenge even backward ideas—such as racism and nationalism—that are present within the class. Reformists see the party as the key to achieving socialism, through election victories and parliamentary reforms.
The bulk of Harman’s essay focuses on the groundbreaking contributions that Vladimir Lenin and Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci made to our understanding of the relationship between a revolutionary party and the working class. He does a brilliant job of explaining why the two seemingly contradictory planks of Lenin’s position on the party and class are in fact complimentary.
Firstly, Harman argues, Lenin contends that the working class has the ability to act spontaneously, and to rapidly develop high levels of class-consciousness. This position marks Lenin out from social democrats (or reformists), who do not recognise the consciousness of the class as distinct from the party.
What is key to note here is that whilst consciousness can develop rapidly, it develops unevenly. As Marx argued, the ruling ideas in any society are the ideas of the ruling class. Even at high points of struggle, it is often only a minority that completely break through the heavy social weight holding bourgeois ideas in place.
This is where the second half of Lenin’s apparent paradox comes into play. For Lenin, and Gramsci, the party has a key role to play in uniting this minority and developing and disseminating theory—that is, in taking the lessons of working class struggle and developing an analysis of the way forward.
But, as Harman shows, there is no contradiction here. The party is needed to store the knowledge of the class struggle, and to provide the framework for action when class-consciousness does develop rapidly. Likewise, the revolutionary party must recognise the spontaneity and energy of the working class, learning from the class in struggle.
The working class, he argues, is thrown into opposition to the system spontaneously by the very nature of the capitalism. The revolutionary party, on the other hand, is a voluntary organisation that is conscious in its opposition to the system.
In the here and now, Harman’s analysis is useful on many fronts. His analysis of the social democratic party informs how we relate to members of the ALP, as we understand that there are many and varied interests represented within the party—some that we must work with, and some that we work against. Likewise, Harman’s analysis informs our analysis of the motives and interests of the Rudd government.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, Harman’s analysis of the revolutionary party informs the work of revolutionaries around the world today. We understand the importance of developing our understanding and analysis of contemporary capitalism—precisely so that we are ready and able to fight back.
The Prophet and the Proletariat
In defining the relationship between the revolutionary party and the working class, Harman outlined the importance of developing and refining the ideas needed to advance the class struggle. In this vein, one of Harman’s greatest contributions to the Left was his work on political Islam, “The Prophet and the Proletariat”, which was published in International Socialism 64 in 1994. The work became particularly important in the wake of September 11, with the rise of anti-Muslim racism and the ongoing occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The article was written as an intervention into debates on the left over the role of political Islam, particularly in the wake of the Iranian revolution of 1978 and 1979. Harman responds to two diametrically opposed problems in the Left’s reactions to political Islam—both of which are still evident today in the campaigns against the anti-terror laws and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Harman identifies a strain of argument that equates political Islam with fascism, and at the other end of the spectrum he argues against those who blindly support political Islam on the grounds that it is inherently anti-imperialist.
Whilst these two currents are diametrically opposed, Harman argues that their problems originate in the same place—a misunderstanding of the class basis of political Islam.
Harman begins by clarifying that religion is not a social force in and of itself. Rather, it is a set of ideas that attaches to class interest. Political Islam, Harman argues, has arisen where there has been Trotsky’s “combined and uneven development”— where we have seen ravages of imperialism and the rise of a local capitalist class. In countries like Egypt, one of Harman’s case studies, these conditions have left a series of contradictions that different social forces have reacted to in different ways.
Having made the case that religion is not a social force in and of itself, but rather an ideology that serves the interests of a particular class, Harman identifies four distinct strains of Political Islam. For us, the most important strain that Harman analyses is the political Islam of the new middle class in societies where capitalism is developing. Harman argues that the new middle class, of university-educated professionals, forms the bulk of the Political Islam movement in countries like Iran.
Harman outlines that the fact that political Islam has a similar class base to classical fascism—that is white collar professionals and the petty bourgeoisie—does not mean that one can equate Political Islam with classical fascism. Other, non-fascist movements have also been based in the middle class, including third world nationalisms, the Jacobins and Maoist Stalinism.
What Harman says the class base of Political Islam means is that sometimes Islamist forces act against the interest of international and/or national capital (for example in the resistance movements in Iraq and Afghanistan today) but, crucially, sometimes they will act in the interests of international and/or national capital (for example, targeting workers’ organisations and women’s rights movements in Iran).
Harman examines in great detail the way that these contradictions have played out in Algeria, Egypt, Iran and Sudan.
Harman’s article was, and continues to be, incredibly useful to the Left because, through outlining the class basis of Political Islam—he can clearly show what this means for alliances in the working class movement.
On the one hand, we cannot understand Islamists as our enemies. They are not fascists, nor are they responsible for system of imperialism. To this end, we cannot support the state in repression of Islamists, whether it is with the introduction of anti-terror legislation in Australia or the banning of the hijab in France.
To those who see Political Islam as an unequivocal force for liberation, Harman says that cannot support political Islam without question, as ultimately we compete with the Islamists for roots in the working class. Petty bourgeois forces can go either way when there is a rise in working class struggle, and we cannot guarantee the support of Political Islam in a revolutionary situation.
The most important point that Harman makes for us however, is that at times the Islamists will be in opposition to the state and we have to struggle with them—against the wars in the Middle East and the occupation of Palestine, against the banning of the hijab and crucially against anti-Islamic racism. As Harman put it, we are “with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never.”
“Party and Class” and “The Prophet and the Proletariat” are key parts of the rich legacy that Chris Harman has left to Marxists and the Left around the world. Harman spent his life engaged in activism, and working to draw the theoretical lessons that have been crucial in advancing the class struggle. These lessons are rich, and valuable. The best tribute that we can pay to Harman’s life is to continue to use and build upon his life’s work in the struggle.