A whiff of tear gas

Issue: 125

Andy Durgan

Upon joining the Dagenham and Ilford International Socialists in late 1972 I was offered a special bargain price package of reading material. I eagerly devoured what was a fairly mixed selection of work but one pamphlet stood out: Chris Harman’s How the Revolution was Lost. Having flirted with Stalinism, here were all the arguments I had been looking for. Brilliantly succinct and, in contrast with most of the stuff masquerading as Marxist writing I had waded through until that point, it was understandable. It was this talent, what Pat Stack refers to as his “unfailing ability to make the complex seem clear and simple”, that made Chris so special.

Despite being one of the outstanding Marxist theorists, historians and economists of the second half of the 20th century, he lacked any academic ambitions. As is known, he abandoned his doctoral thesis to dedicate himself full time to revolutionary politics. Less known is that the only copy of his thesis was stolen from the locker he had left it in. Explaining what for most people would have been an unmitigated disaster many years later he seemed only vaguely amused by his misfortune!

I first heard Chris at an IS day school in East London in early 1973 where he spoke on armed insurrection—not, as I would realise later, the normal fare of our public meetings or debates. Like others, I was initially disappointed in that his oratory style did not compare to his writing skills, but I would soon appreciate that, to cite Pat Stack again, you “never left one of [Chris’s] meetings without feeling [you] had learned something new”. This particular time it was the uprising of the Austrian Schutzbund in 1934. Over the years, of course, Chris’s speaking style would improve and increasingly match the clarity of his writing.

Later when I got to know Chris I found that behind that shy, and at times awkward, exterior was a very likeable person. His lack of pretension and his sense of humour were what most struck you about him. It was, in fact, surprisingly easy (surprisingly for those who did not know him perhaps) to talk to him about more or less anything. But even on the most relaxed social occasions being with Chris was part of your political education.

Where we both shared a very specific interest was in relation to events in Spain. Chris followed developments during the transition from Francoist dictatorship to faltering democracy closely and had contact with various leading activists of the country’s burgeoning far left organisations. The most promising of these was the Organización de Izquierda Comunista (Left Communist Organisation, OIC) which had emerged out of the mass struggles of the mid-1970s and had two or three thousand members, mainly workers. Their politics were fairly eclectic but, in contrast to much of the Spanish radical left, emphasised the centrality of working class self-emancipation and were clearly anti-Stalinist. Relations with the OIC had flourished after it was discovered that they had translated and published Chris’s pamphlet analysing the denouement of the Portuguese Revolution.

In early 1976 Chris attended the still clandestine OIC’s first congress. This took place in a monastery and, much to Chris’s amusement, the delegates periodically interrupted proceedings to sing hymns and thus fool any passing would-be informant! On a more serious note, the subsequent collapse of the OIC is dealt with in his seminal piece on the crisis in the European revolutionary left that appeared in International Socialism in 1979. Like much of Spain’s far left the OIC had not expected the mass radicalisation of the mid-1970s to give way to a stable bourgeois democracy.

More tenuous relations were now established with the ex-Maoist Movimiento Comunista (MC), which the remnants of the OIC had joined. The IS Tendency was only beginning to emerge as an organised tendency at this time and the SWP still maintained a fairly pragmatic relationship with a number of groups who rejected Stalinism, or at least claimed to, and were not afflicted by the peculiarities of orthodox Trotskyism. MC appeared to fit the mould and, moreover, was quite an impressive organisation both in terms of size and base. However, Chris became increasingly frustrated with MC’s confused politics and expected them to eventually disintegrate. This was something we disagreed over but ultimately he would be proved right, of course.

In the 1990s with the near terminal crisis of the Spanish revolutionary left and the demise of the communist bloc, new opportunities arose and eventually led to the setting up of what would become En Lucha. From the group’s foundation in 1994 through to his death Chris would play a decisive role in its evolution. The very nature of the group, its core of talented young activists and its rejection of simplistic formulae and “short cuts”, had a lot to do with Chris’s unassuming way of relating to the comrades. With his help we weathered the ups and downs that any young organisation inevitably faces.

At first comrades found Chris slightly disconcerting as he often appeared to fall asleep during the rather lengthy sessions of our conferences. They soon learnt that was merely a ruse as he would suddenly “wake up” and make some brief but extremely useful contribution to the debate! Over the years Chris became a popular and near permanent fixture at our annual gathering; only his presence in Egypt meant he missed this year’s.

Above all Chris represented what was best about 1968. Having become politically active myself in the shadow of the 1960s, the superb The Fire Last Time has weighed heavily on my own political development. And although it was hardly May 1968, a favourite snapshot of Chris comes from Nice in December 2000 when we tried to “blockade” the EU summit. Showered by the CRS with tear gas canisters and as bravado turned into shambolic retreat I, literally, bumped into Chris still trying to go forward, a broad grin on his face. This is how I am sure he would like us to remember him: very much alive, fighting and enjoying every minute of it. Gracias Chris por todo. La lucha continua.