Chris Harman: a life in the struggle

Issue: 125

Ian Birchall

I first met Chris Harman in the spring of 1963, in Peter Sedgwick’s attic.1 We had gone to Liverpool for a meeting of the Young Socialist paper Young Guard. There had been a danger that control of the paper would pass from the International Socialists (IS) to various orthodox Trotskyists, but we won the vote. Long-forgotten froth of far-left factionalism. But not entirely so. Young Guard had real influence in the Labour Party Young Socialists, and through it what had been the tiny Socialist Review Group, with less than 40 members, grew by 1964 to a couple of hundred comrades, the people who went on to take advantage of the industrial upturn of the mid-60s and then the upheavals of 1968.

Chris had become politically active in Watford while still at school.2 He was involved in an independent left youth group formed after the 1959 election by people with a range of left wing views, but distrustful of the Labour Party.3 There were contacts with the New Left; on an Aldermaston CND March he bought a copy of International Socialism and assumed that such a well-produced journal must be the product of a large organisation. Subsequently Tony Cliff was invited to speak. Chris’s ideas were still in flux—he thought Russia was state capitalist, but that Poland and Cuba were socialist.

In autumn 1961 he went to Leeds University where he teamed up with Mike Heym. He joined the Socialist Review Group, which became IS the following year. Building a branch was not easy in Leeds, where the Communist Party was still strong, and the Socialist Labour League (forerunner of the Workers Revolutionary Party) was also influential. They sold Young Guard, International Socialism and Socialist Review. Cliff came to Leeds about twice a year to speak.

In 1964 Chris came to do a PhD at the London School of Economics (LSE). Here he began to develop as a significant student leader. He played a major part in the LSE occupation of 1967 when disciplinary action was taken against students protesting at the appointment of a collaborator with the Rhodesian racist regime as LSE director. This marked the beginning of the student movement in Britain.

At the same time Chris was active on the editorial board of Labour Worker, forerunner of Socialist Worker. There were not many of us and there could be no question of specialising. We all had to turn our hand to whatever was required. Chris began to acquire his enormous breadth of knowledge and interests. In the first few months of 1965 he wrote on the witch-hunt of Communists in the engineering union, on incomes policy and on the United Nations.4 He later wrote, as “our mining correspondent”, a sharp critique of a Communist Party pamphlet on the future of the mining industry.5 He refused to use his name “in case I ever meet a miner”. The following year he wrote a major piece on the tenth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. The next month the paper carried a letter from a Hungarian émigré stating that “even a Hungarian who witnessed those days could not have given a more detailed and better informed account of the uprising”.6

It was not all writing. In July 1966 a demonstration against the Vietnam War was attacked by police. A number of those arrested were charged with assaulting the police and “possessing an offensive weapon”, that is, a placard on a stick! Some were jailed. However, Chris managed to turn the tables. “With a well-briefed lawyer and able witnesses he received merely a fine. On the basis of previous case law the offensive weapon charge was dropped”.7 He thus helped to establish that a placard was not an offensive weapon.

It was partly as a result of Chris’s intervention at a meeting of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in the summer of 1967 that the first big Grosvenor Square demonstration in October 1967 was organised.8

Then came 1968. This was a crucial turning-point for the International Socialists.9 Chris, still only 25 years old, established himself as an indispensable part of the leadership. From 1964 to his death he was always a member of the leading body of the organisation under the various names of Working Committee, Executive Committee and Central Committee.

There is a wonderful description of Chris at the LSE in 1968:

“We have to be absolutely clear about this,” said Chris Harman from the platform of the LSE Old Theatre, as he always said when starting a speech. A groan went round the theatre and Harman brandished his moped crash helmet. “We must be quite clear what’s happening. 1968 is a year of international revolution no less than 1793, 1830, 1848, 1917 and 1936. We are experiencing the re-birth of the international Marxist movement after over 30 years of defeat and hibernation.” The audience of prematurely hard-bitten student lefties gathered to inaugurate the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation looked impressed. Harman, although fairly widely disliked, was also widely respected as a Marxist intransigent. When he started evoking the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, the Barcelona uprising, he meant it. Militants were to be seen conferring about what did actually happen in 1830.10

In 2008 I chaired a meeting where Chris spoke on the legacy of 1968. In private conversation he commented sourly—but alas prophetically—that the reason why the fortieth anniversary was being commemorated was that most of us would be dead by the fiftieth. But in speaking he defended the spirit of 1968 as passionately as he had done four decades earlier. His book The Fire Last Time is a powerful record of the origins and impact of that legendary year.11 It’s now fashionable for bright young journalists to sneer at 1968. Chris centred his account on class struggle and separated the serious issues of human liberation from the trivia of lifestyle. “May 1968” was not about “student riots”, as is often ignorantly repeated, but the biggest general strike in human history. Yet he never forgot the cultural dimension, above all with references to his beloved Bob Dylan, who provided a couple of chapter titles.

As the euphoria of 1968 began to subside, new arguments emerged. Chris, with his concern for clarity, sometimes lost friends. A notorious example was the memorial meeting for Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, who died in September 1969. An eyewitness describes Chris’s contribution:

He addressed the meeting with a certain lack of style but no more than one would expect and proceeded in fairly forthright terms. He dealt first with Ho Chi Minh’s contribution to the world revolutionary movement…

After a while Harman proceeded to get on to the question of Ho Chi Minh’s contribution to killing off the Trotskyist movement in North and South Vietnam. He expanded on various themes and pointed out that from the International Socialists’ point of view, though they supported fully the Vietnamese people’s struggle against American imperialism and had done a great deal practically in Britain on this theme, it was crucial to realise that Ho Chi Minh and the regime he had headed were not the answer to North Vietnam or Vietnam as a whole and what was eventually necessary was a workers’ republic which would have to get rid of the present set-up. This went almost unnoticed by the audience… Anyway, Harman finished his speech and a lady aged about 55 to 60 got up and marched to the front and said that it was absolutely outrageous that people should just sit there and vegetate when somebody had just made a totally slanderous attack on the leader of the Vietnamese Revolution who had just died. Whereupon there was thunderous applause from the 60 percent of the audience who weren’t in IS. Harman looked slightly surprised and slightly grieved and slightly pleased by the reaction to his address. Tariq Ali looked very unhappy indeed because he could see his meeting falling apart in front of him. At the back of the hall a Maoist shouted “Washington spy!” at Chris Harman, which seemed to please him further. The audience now became somewhat heated.12

Chris had not quite finished with the academic world. In 1968-69 he was employed teaching social science at Enfield College of Technology (one of the forerunner colleges of Middlesex University). His contract was not renewed. He told me recently that he had been contacted by Eric Robinson, the head of department responsible for his dismissal, who had read Chris’s A People’s History of the World and now regretted his decision. Chris replied thanking him for liberating him from the academic world.

Chris had no patience with the division of labour which characterises the academic profession. Was he an economist, a sociologist, a historian, a political scientist or a philosopher? His work spread cheerfully over a range of disciplines. Ask an academic historian a question, and often you will be told, “It’s not my period.” To the author of A People’s History of the World, such professional demarcations were an utter irrelevance.

Chris was an “organic intellectual” in Gramsci’s sense of the term.13 It should be remembered that when Chris wrote his review of John M Cammett’s book on Gramsci in 1968 (IS1: 32) the Italian Marxist was little known in Britain, other than through the dubious interpretations of Stalinists or the New Left Review team. Chris was one of the first British writers to point to Gramsci’s importance; later he would vigorously defend the revolutionary content of Gramsci’s work as against the Eurocommunist misrepresentation that it pointed to the abandonment of class politics (IS1: 98/99).

1968 unleashed new waves of struggle around the globe, and a new internationalism was born. Chris embarked on one of the activities that would continue for the rest of his life—travelling abroad to meet socialist activists, to discuss with them and to learn from them. At Easter 1969 he attended an international seminar on socialism and revolution organised by students at Prague University while Czechoslovakia was still under Russian occupation (SW 26/4/1969). There is a memorable description of Chris’s intervention by the writer John Berger:

A political activist from London described the daily struggle in British factories to resist anti-trade-unionist legislation and his group’s long-term aim of creating workers’ councils to act as soviets. Could some of the lessons they had learned apply to the Czech situation? His was the longest and most passionate speech, which remained uninterrupted. After it a Czech student remarked, “Do you know what most of us would reply to all that you have just said? We’d ask you whether you had read Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed.” The activist, who had held the floor with such force, shook his head—not to answer “No”: he had surely read it—but as though to free his face from a mesh of cobwebs into which he had mysteriously and inadvertently walked.14

In September 1970 he was in Jordan when the government attacked Palestinian organisations and began to drive them out of the country. Socialist Worker carried a front-page lead by “Chris Harman just returned from Amman” which described how “the shells have been tearing apart the corrugated iron huts, tents and crude concrete dwellings where the refugees somehow eke out an existence. Whole blocks of flats have been blown apart in order to ‘flush out’ a single sniper” (SW 26/9/1970).

By now he had become a full-time worker for the party; he remained one for the rest of his life. Although his main work was on publications, he also took a close interest in day to day activity. George Paizis, an old comrade from the LSE, joined IS in 1970 and rapidly became North London District Secretary. He recalls: “Chris helped me a lot. He was on the end of the phone every day, whenever I needed him. He would listen to all my questions and suggestions and come up with ideas”.15

At the end of 1968 Chris took over as editor of International Socialism. Under Mike Kidron and Nigel Harris the journal had played a vital role in developing the IS analysis of the world. Now, with the rapid recruitment in 1968 and the turn to industrial struggle that followed, the journal had to be more directly oriented to party building. Chris’s article on “Party and Class” (IS1: 35) was an important contribution to the debate on democratic centralism that took place in the organisation during 1968; it has been frequently reproduced since.16 A special issue devoted to Trotsky’s writings on fascism and the united front provided the foundation on which IS anti-fascist work was developed during the 1970s (IS1: 38/39). Three articles by Jim Higgins laid out the foundations of revolutionary tactics and strategy in the trade union movement (IS1: 45/46/47). Chris also saw the importance of the journal in developing a broader socialist culture. He published Peter Sedgwick’s remarkable article on Orwell (IS1: 37). I personally had several arguments with Chris in which he sharply attacked my enthusiasm for Sartre, arguing that Sartre was an apologist for Stalinism. Then, rather paradoxically, he urged me to write a defence of Sartre (IS1: 45/46). He was thus of enormous encouragement to me, as he must have been to many other comrades, in developing as a writer.

Chris relinquished the editorship at the end of 1971, but resumed it in September 1973. Again the journal, now a monthly, had to steer the organisation through a difficult period which saw the Chilean coup, the Middle East war, the end of the post-war boom and the intense industrial struggle culminating in the defeat of the Heath government. Chris’s contribution went far beyond what appeared under his own signature. The piece “April Dream in Portugal” published under my name was substantially rewritten by Chris with a number of additional passages (IS1: 69). I believe “Towards a Rank and File Movement” by Andreas Nagliatti (IS1: 66), which laid down the IS position on this important question, actually had a substantial input from Chris.

Chris also worked on Socialist Worker, then edited by Roger Protz. Roger had developed the weekly paper from a rather scruffy four-pager launched in 1968 to a well-designed 16-page paper. The Heath government of 1970-4 saw the biggest upturn in class struggle in Britain since the 1920s. In 1972 the Saltley Gates picket mobilised thousands of engineering workers in support of the miners; a few months later the threat of a general strike ensured the release of five dockers imprisoned under Heath’s anti-union laws. In 1974 a second miners’ strike led to the fall of the Heath government. Analysing the Communist Party’s role in recent industrial struggles (IS1: 63) Chris concluded that “in an increasing number of struggles, the CP as a party refuses to give a lead of any sort… The short term aim of a revolutionary socialist organisation like IS must be to replace the CP as the main focus to which militants in industry look for a lead.”

At the same time came the overthrow of the dictatorship in Portugal and the start of a wave of mass workers’ struggle. Chris reacted to this from the very beginning, insisting that there was a pre-revolutionary situation in Portugal; often he seemed to be nagging comrades to urge us to do all we could to intervene. The next tumultuous 18 months proved him right. He visited Portugal more than once, to see things for himself, and to discuss with members of the Portuguese revolutionary left. However, Chris shared with Cliff the belief that the choice ahead was between socialist revolution and the return of the far right. In autumn 1975 he wrote in “Portugal: The Latest Phase” (IS1: 83), “There is no possibility of evading for more than a few months (at most) sharp, armed clashes between the classes.” He and Cliff both underestimated reformism, which in the shape of Mario Soares’s Socialist Party saved the system.

The 1970s were also stormy years inside the party. In 1974 Cliff made a number of demands for changes in Socialist Worker, which led to the removal of Roger Protz. Paul Foot took over, and then in 1975 Chris became editor. There were new challenges for the paper—the way in which the trade union bureaucracy had gone along with Labour’s “Social Contract”, the shift from major national strikes to smaller struggles like that by Asian women at Grunwicks for union rights, the rise of unemployment and the launch of the Right to Work Campaign, and the threat of racism and the far right. Chris supported Cliff’s policy of developing a paper not written for workers but substantially written by workers.

The argument over Socialist Worker led to a more general internal dispute, which at the end of 1975 led to the departure of not only Roger Protz, but other veteran leaders from the 60s like Jim Higgins and John Palmer, as well as a number of trade union activists, notably in Birmingham. Chris sided with Cliff throughout this dispute.17

So it must have been a shock to Chris when he in turn came into conflict with Cliff. In early 1978, with Cliff’s support, Chris was removed from the editorship and Socialist Worker was “relaunched”. The result came to be known as the “punk paper”. The aim, to relate to the new audience around the rapidly growing Anti Nazi League, was laudable. The means employed, a paper with more coverage of sport and music, and even a soap opera style serial, but with diluted politics, and less coverage of the—admittedly quiescent—industrial struggle, were more questionable. That summer a conference of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), as the organisation was now known, voted to reject the new orientation of the paper. The four journalists primarily responsible—Paul Foot, Jim Nichol, Laurie Flynn and Pete Marsden—resigned. Chris was restored to the editorship, but within days Cliff manoeuvred to ensure that he was forced to stand down again.18 Cliff himself then assumed the editorship.

Not surprisingly, Chris found this “disturbing”, but he viewed the situation positively. He could now do what he felt necessary to build the organisation without having to consult with Cliff twice a week. He had to think for himself.19

Chris was effectively marginalised within his own organisation. He was still under 40 and had an impressive record of publications. He could easily have returned to the academic world, and achieved much greater comfort and prosperity for the last 30 years of his life. I don’t think the possibility even crossed his mind. He was totally devoted to the party and to socialist principles.

At the beginning of 1979 he wrote a remarkable article entitled “The Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left” (IS2: 4). This analysed the problems faced by revolutionaries in various parts of Europe and was an important complement to ideas Cliff was developing about the downturn, raising major questions about how the party should reorient to a changing situation. Looking back on the early 1970s Chris noted that “the expectations of the revolutionary left look absurd in retrospect”, and argued that “In a downturn in the class struggle, it is the duty of revolutionary organisations to relate to all sorts of movements that develop outside the workplaces among oppressed and exploited groups. But it has to do this while never forgetting that the agent of revolutionary change lies elsewhere…the link with the working class movement has to be an active one, not merely a rhetorical one.”

At the end of 1979 he became editor of Socialist Review, a position he described as a “consolation prize”. Socialist Review had been launched the previous year, also to relate to the ANL milieu. Its first issues had been lively but somewhat chaotic. Chris transformed the magazine into an important educational tool for the party as the ascent of Thatcherism made life a lot more difficult for revolutionaries.

Throughout this period Chris had been turning out not only a flood of journalistic writing, but some much more substantial contributions to Marxist understanding.20 Cliff’s work on state capitalism had been at the centre of Chris’s intellectual work since the early 60s,21 but he did not simply parrot Cliff’s conclusions. Rather he produced a number of important pieces which complemented Cliff’s work.

In 1967, for the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Chris had written “How the Revolution Was Lost” (IS1: 30), frequently reproduced as a pamphlet. Cliff in his book on Russia had given an account of the structures of Russian state capitalism. What was missing was an account of the origins of the system. This was an important question since Cliff—unlike other theorists of state capitalism—had always defended Bolshevism and denied that Leninism led to Stalinism. Chris’s carefully argued account showed how the revolution had been defeated.

In 1974 came his first book, Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe.22 This was in a sense the sequel to Cliff’s 1952 book Stalin’s Satellites in Europe. Cliff had shown how the Eastern European Stalinist states had come into existence. Chris’s account showed the internal contradictions that became ever more visible. Cliff had argued that Stalinism produced its own gravedigger, the working class. Chris gave a vivid narrative account of how workers had fought back, in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The revised edition under the title Class Struggle in Eastern Europe took the story forward to Poland in 1980 and the rise of Solidarity.23 The epilogue came in 1990 with Chris’s article “The Storm Breaks” (IS2: 46), where he argued that the collapse of “Communism” was “neither a step forward nor a step backwards, but a step sidewards [sic]”.

Asked if the failure of the Russian Revolution had been inevitable, IS members would reply that the revolution failed because it did not spread, that if the German Revolution had succeeded things would have been different. But most of us had only the haziest idea of what actually happened in Germany in 1918-23. Chris’s The Lost Revolution (1982) provided a readable and concrete account of the process. He drew on Pierre Broué’s monumental study24 (only available in English in 2004) and on a range of German-language sources.25

The German Revolution raised many questions of strategy and tactics—ultra-leftism, the united front, the call for a “workers’ government”, etc. It is doubtful if an academic with no practical experience of revolutionary organisation could have written the book. Take, for example, Chris’s account of the crisis in the first year of the German Communist Party. A large section of the membership held wildly ultra-left positions, such as refusal to participate in elections and to work in the trade unions. Such positions were a serious problem for the party, limiting its capacity to intervene and to recruit widely in the working class. The party leadership forced confrontation and lost half the membership. As Chris wrote:

The party leadership would have done better to have pushed through its own policies at the congress and then taken on and removed the most irreconcilable opposition figures in the localities one at a time—especially since in the months that followed it became clear that different forms of impatience were driving the different oppositionists in completely different directions.26

Chris was doubtless thinking of his own experience at the LSE and of the rapid recruitment of revolutionary students into IS in the aftermath of 1968.27

In spring 1982 Chris returned to the editorship of Socialist Worker, a post he would keep for the next 22 years. It was a bleak time. Thatcher was on the attack, and the level of resistance was low. The SWP had decided to wind up its rank and file trade union groups and the Right to Work Campaign. Tony Benn’s attempt to rally the Labour left had passed its peak. Now Thatcher was fanning the flames of nationalism with the Falklands war, which gave Chris what he later called a “golden opportunity” to reorient the paper. There were organisational problems too, and initially Chris was spending 60 to 80 hours a week on editing.

Through two decades Chris steered the paper through a long downturn punctuated with occasional sharp rises in the level of struggle, trying to neither miss opportunities nor arouse false hopes. Again he was a central figure in the leadership; his quarrel with Cliff was made up. He was a regular speaker at meetings around the country. Though never as impressive an orator as Cliff or Paul Foot, he was a lucid speaker whose talks had a powerful intellectual content.

Throughout the 12 months of the miners’ strike it was the central question in Socialist Worker. From 10 March 1984 to 9 March 1985 every issue of Socialist Worker but one had a front-page lead on the strike. In the early months the paper concentrated on proposing strategies which could enable the strike to achieve victory. As it became a long war of attrition, Socialist Worker focused more on the need to build solidarity with a defensive struggle. Even in the last week of the strike Socialist Worker headlined “Fight On”, and argued that “staying out remains the only way to ensure a settlement which will keep the union intact…and ready to fight off future attacks” (SW 2/3/1985). The paper never admitted that defeat was inevitable until the hard core of militant miners themselves accepted the reality.

Chris was a theoretician as well as a journalist, and this helped him to guide the paper through difficult situations. After the poll tax riot in 1990 there was a virulent press witch-hunt against “anarchists” alleged to be responsible for the violence. Socialist Worker responded with an editorial headed “No Wonder They Fight Back”, seeing the riot as a response to unemployment, student poverty and police harassment. “Of course no socialist believes rioting will beat the poll tax, but neither should any socialist condemn the howl of rage which filled the fashionable West End last Saturday.” Doubtless Chris remembered what he himself had written about the March Action in Germany in 1921.28 There was a constant interaction between theory and practice.

In autumn 1992, when the Tories announced a programme of pit closures, Socialist Worker headlined “General Strike Now!” (SW 24/10/1992). This was not a rush of blood to Chris’s head, but resulted from the fact that the paper had a network of organisers and supporters throughout the country, and was able to respond to the mood of anger within the working class movement.

The revolutionary hopes which we had shared in the aftermath of 1968 had evaporated, but Chris continued to use the paper as an organiser and an educator, preparing the new cadres who would respond to whatever opportunities the years ahead might bring. Chris gave particular attention to developing a team of journalists. Among many tributes that appeared after his death, there were several from journalists who had worked with him.

Kevin Ovenden recalled that:

Chris had a rare gift for crystallising a nuanced political position or difficult concept into a few, vivid words of plain English… The effort he expended, and made those of us working on the paper sweat over too, to make even a single headline accurately capture a complex reality and cut through it, was an indication of how seriously he took the task of communicating our tradition to a mass audience.

Hazel Croft remembered him “bringing editorial meetings down to earth by insisting that the paper covered the hardships and concerns of its working class readers”.29

In the 1978 dispute Chris and Paul Foot had been bitterly opposed, but Chris never let personal grudges interfere with his political judgment. In 1984 he persuaded Paul to write a weekly column for Socialist Worker, saying, “We’ll like it, but that’s not the point. It will do you good”.30

In 1994 Chris wrote an important article on Islamic fundamentalism, “The Prophet and the Proletariat” (IS2: 64). Beginning with the Marxist analysis of religion, Chris set out to give a detailed account of the social context which produced Islamism, with extensive examples from Egypt, Algeria, Iran and Sudan. He also made a creative application of Tony Cliff’s theory of deflected permanent revolution. Stressing the contradictory nature of Islamism, he concluded:

The left has made two mistakes in relation to the Islamists in the past. The first has been to write them off as fascists, with whom we have nothing in common. The second has been to see them as “progressives” who must not be criticised.

He urged socialists to aim to “win some of the young people who support it [Islamism] to a very different, independent, revolutionary socialist perspective”.31

Chris’s most substantial work came in 1999 with his massive A People’s History of the World.32 It contained a vast amount of information on different periods and topics, but was given its focus by the consistent attempt to apply the Marxist method to the whole of human history. Chris drew on a lifetime’s breadth of reading, but he also needed to fill the gaps with intense labour. Though carrying on with his editing and general political duties, he managed to get to the British Library a couple of times a week, where, as he once told me during a hurried lunch, he read four books in a day.

With its attention to detail it was a valuable educational resource, which helped to give revolutionary activists, constantly caught up in the short-term preoccupation with the next paper sale, a sense of their place in the long sweep of human history. Despite its title, this was not the “history from below” much promoted in the late 20th century. Certainly Chris opened his account with some lines from Brecht:

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?

In the books you will find the names of kings.

Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

Human history could not have happened without the labour of nameless millions. But for Chris it was equally important to grasp history from above, to understand how our rulers have ruled us, so that we can learn how to overthrow them. Academic specialists may find errors in the treatment of particular periods and countries, but few academics would have dared to take on such an ambitious venture.

The new century brought enormous new opportunities with the post-Seattle anti-capitalist movement and then the anti-war movement. As Chris wrote in “Anti-Capitalism: Theory and Practice” (IS2: 88):

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people are beginning, for the first time, to challenge the global system… No one can dictate what they think and how their ideas develop. But that does not mean there are not arguments over ideas, or that any of us should abstain from those arguments… It is up to all of us to help build the new movement—and to help it to learn to deal with these issues.

In 2004 he retired from Socialist Worker and again became editor of International Socialism, which he had first edited 35 years earlier. The new period also produced problems, and with the Respect debacle the party went through a difficult patch, which Chris analysed in his article “The Crisis in Respect” (IS2: 117).

Just after his remarkable appearance before a committee of the US Senate in 2005, George Galloway addressed a packed rally in the Friends Meeting House in London where he was, quite justifiably, greeted with enormous enthusiasm. In the course of his account Galloway mentioned that while waiting to appear he had smoked a Cuban cigar. This produced a spontaneous wave of applause. I felt no obligation to endorse Fidel Castro’s export trade; glancing around the hall I saw that Chris too was sitting with his hands calmly folded. A principled gesture or a reversion to the sectarian habits of our 1960s youth?

Revolutionaries have a double duty: to encourage the maximum possible unity in struggle and to seek the greatest possible clarity in
understanding the situation. Did Chris always achieve the correct balance? Perhaps not. But he had absolutely nothing in common with those whose only response to new initiatives is to stand back and predict failure—the ultimate soft option. Right up to his death Chris remained an indispensable figure in the SWP leadership.

Chris had a broad range of cultural interests, and one reason among so many for lamenting his untimely death is that he was never able to develop these in writing. As John Rose reminds us (SW 10/11/2009), he had a great admiration for Flaubert’s novel Sentimental Education, which depicted the 1848 revolution in France. A critical study by Chris would have been enthralling.

He also had a surprisingly wide knowledge of popular culture. I remember him intervening in a discussion on Walter Benjamin with a reference to the Honeycombs.33 Only sport eluded him. Last year at a book launch for Dave Renton’s CLR. James: Cricket’s Philosopher King he appalled many of his own comrades by arguing that James’s writings on cricket were no more significant than a Labour MP professing to be an Arsenal supporter.

The last discussion I had with Chris was during the lunch break at an SWP day school on Lenin, just five days before he died. Referring to Althusser’s claim that Marxism is not about human happiness but about “a change in the mode of production”,34 I asked him if he thought socialism was about happiness. He frowned at me, clearly feeling the question was too complex for my simplistic formulation, and said, “It depends what you mean by happiness.” We had no time to pursue the question, and now I shall never know what he thought. I do know that few people compare to Chris in the way he devoted his life and his powerful intellect to the struggle for a fairer and happier world.


1: In order to prevent this article drowning in footnotes I have given sources in the text; SW indicates Socialist Worker and IS1: and IS2: the two series of International Socialism. A collection of Chris’s writings, which will be expanded, is on the Marxist Internet Archive at Other pieces, at the time of writing not on the MIA, can be found on Chris’s own website” There are also items on the two International Socialism and Socialist Review websites, and Since most readers are probably more adept than I am at navigating the internet, I shall leave it to them to locate the material.

2: Some of this account is based on a two-hour interview I did with Chris in April 2009.

3: Loosely connected with the similar group in Newcastle described in Charlton, 2009.

4: Labour Worker, Mid-January 1965, 1 April 1965, Mid-April 1965.

5: Labour Worker, September 1965.

6: Labour Worker, November, December 1966.

7: Labour Worker, 5 August 1966.

8: Harman, 1988, p149.

9: See my article “Seizing the Time: Tony Cliff and 1968” (IS2: 118).

10: Widgery, 1976, p341. Widgery notes that he is quoting contemporary personal diaries, including his own, so it is not clear whether this was observed by Widgery himself or one of his friends.

11: Harman, 1988.

12: Widgery, 1976, p414. Again it is not clear who was actually the author of this account.

13: Gramsci distinguished “traditional” intellectuals-such as academics who claim to be autonomous of the class struggle-from “organic” intellectuals who act directly on behalf of one of the contending classes.

14: Berger, 1972, p241. Chris is not named, but the description is unmistakable to anyone who knew him at that time.

15: Interview with George Paizis, October 2008.

16: Since Chris is sometimes seen as merely a disciple of Cliff it is worth noting that this article contained criticisms of Cliff’s views on both Lenin and Luxemburg. In particular Chris dissented from Cliff’s formulation in Rosa Luxemburg that “for Marxists in the advanced industrial countries, Lenin’s original position can much less serve as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’s”, a formulation which Cliff changed in the edition of Rosa Luxemburg issued shortly after Chris’s article. (See Cliff 2001, p113 for the text of the changes.) Influence was not all one way.

17: In Jim Higgins’s account Chris is depicted as the archetypal Cliff loyalist, whose role was to produce “the justification for Cliff’s latest wheeze”-Higgins, 1997, p116. Jim felt somewhat threatened by the younger generation, and though he was only twelve years older than Chris he used to refer to him as “the boy”.

18: For a detailed account by a participant see Steve Jefferys, “The politics behind the row on the paper”, in the Steve Jefferys Archive, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, MSS.244/2/1/2

19: Interview with Chris, April 2009. Chris gave his own account of the dispute in his article “The Revolutionary Press” (IS2: 24).

20: I’ve only mentioned a small part of Chris’s enormous output. Many readers will be indignant that I have omitted their favourite article or pamphlet. To cover everything would require an article four times as long which would have read like a bibliography rather than an appreciation.

21: Chris’s major contributions in the field of political economy are dealt with in Joseph Choonara’s piece in this issue.

22: Harman, 1974.

23: Harman, 1983.

24: Broué, 2004.

25: Chris had a remarkable capacity for reading foreign languages. At speaking he was not so successful. Though he had read Althusser in the original, when I visited France with him I had to ask where the toilet was on his behalf.

26: Harman, 1982, p153.

27: Broué’s account of this episode is far more sympathetic to the manoeuvres of the KPD leadership-Broué, 2004, pp317-321.

28: Harman, 1982, pp192-220.

29: See

30: Foot, 1990, p xv.

31: The journalist Nick Cohen quite disgracefully added the word “secretly” to this sentence in order to give it a meaning diametrically opposed to Chris’s intention-Cohen 2007.

32: Harman, 1999.

33: The first band with a female drummer to reach Number One (August 1964).

34: Sartre, Gavi and Victor, 1974, p197.


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