Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Chris Harman is Dead: Expanded Political Obituary.

with 11 comments

Contested Till Death.

Chris Harman, a leading figure for decades in the SWP (more here), died last night (here).

There will be many obituaries. This is a critical-political one. That is, like the SWP, we do not feel a need to wrap and hide underneath sentiment fundamental  political disgreements. Tendance Coatesy comes from a very different political tradition, of Continental Marxist unorthodoxy. For us, anti-Stalinists and anti-anti-Communists,  the SWP’s main defining feature, its ‘state capitalist’ theory, is of little interest. That is, the line against Stalinism has already been drawn, and there are better historical and theoretical explanations of the fate of the Soviet Union around. Perhaps more significant to our political activity has been the SWP’s political theory and practice. The organisation changed from an originally open Marxist grouping into the fractured, intolerant, opportunist mess we see today. We can see in Harman’s writings, noted for their lucidity and seriousness,  both sides of the SWP.

I wish therefore to make some comments on Harman’s political legacy.  It is far richer and more positive than today’s SWP party-structure would suggest. But not exactly without faults. These are some aspects,

Many of Harman’s political ideas, formed in the early International Socialists (forerunner of the SWP), has originally a libertarian cast. That is, their version of Marxism was based on socialism being introduced through a party which was  part of the self-organisation of the working class. Against what Trotsky called ‘subsitutionism’, and taking something of Rosa Luxemburg’s views on the importance of spontaneous democratic ferment, they were set out in the pamphlet below,

Party and Class (1969) (Here) Harman concluded that,

“The need is still to build an organisation of revolutionary Marxists that will subject their situation and that of the class as a whole to scientific scrutiny, will ruthlessly criticise their own mistakes, and will, while engaging in the everyday struggles of the mass of workers, attempt to increase their independent self-activity by unremittingly opposing their ideological and practical subservience to the old society. A reaction against the identification of class and party elite made by both Social Democracy and Stalinism is very healthy. It should not, however, prevent a clear-sighted perspective of what we have to do to overcome their legacy.”

No doubt most people on the left remember more clearly the turn to Lenin in the 1970s, and the founding of the SWP on more inflexible democratic centralist grounds. The present-day regime of the Party stems from this period. It  as a time of expulsions, rules about limited factional rights (if at all), and the entrenchment of a quasi-eternal Central Committee. It should not be forgotten that the SWP was not alone in its ‘Bolshevisation’ – the IMG and most of the SWPs splinters (with the notable exception of the working class opposition – that left for ever-  based in the Midlands) were also seized with this delusion.  There is a massive literature on this. On this time it’s often said that Jim Higgin’s More Years for the Locust (here) is the best critical account and explanation.

This bureaucratic orthodoxy-in-perpetual-activism, did not prevent Harman from retaining a critical spirit.

Example, The  Prophet and the Proletariat (here)

The book contains a balanced analysis of Islamism – very different to the one promoted during the SWP’s time in respect (or the relativist views of present-day Islamophiles). Not that it’s without problems. Its conclusion is worth citing in full. Not the least because in its death notice the SWP for reasons not alien to its continuing attempts to trawl in Islamist waters claims that it said that (here),

One of Chris Harman’s articles ‘The Prophet and the Proletariat’ was written to help prevent the marginalisation of the Arab left before the rising tide of political Islam. The article attacked claims that political Islam represented a form of fascism and sought to explain its rise in terms of the failure of the nationalist left; the appeal that a return to pure Islam had for a middle class intelligentsia who suffered from the insults imposed on them by the empire; and the ability of such groups to garner support from sections of the urban poor.

Harman indeed engaged in some superficial class analysis of Islamism (neglecting its strong bourgeois roots and pro-mercantile and state bureaucratic capitalist direction). But his main focus was unrelentingly critical of Islamic groups and the reactionary nature of their politics. What it actually written is that,

“It has been a mistake on the part of socialists to see Islamist movements either as automatically reactionary and “fascist” or as automatically “anti-imperialist” and “progressive”. Radical Islamism, with its project of reconstituting society on the model established by Mohammed in 7th century Arabia, is, in fact, a “utopia” emanating from an impoverished section of the new middle class. As with any “petty bourgeois utopia” [128], its supporters are, in practice, faced with a choice between heroic but futile attempts to impose it in opposition to those who run existing society, or compromising with them, providing an ideological veneer to continuing oppression and exploitation. It is this which leads inevitably to splits between a radical, terrorist wing of Islamism on the one hand, and a reformist wing on the others. It is also this which leads some of the radicals to switch from using arms to try to bring about a society without “oppressors” to using them to impose “Islamic” forms of behaviour on individuals.”

Precisely. Opposing the imposition of ‘Islamic norms of behaviour’ is the dividing line between socialists and reactionary ‘anti-imperialists’, and multi-cultural relativists. Such Islamophile riff-raff has recently been libelling gay campaigners like Peter Tatchell for defending universalism against religious norms.

It would have been interesting to know Harman’s views on this.

“… socialists cannot support the state against the Islamists. Those who do so, on the grounds that the Islamists threaten secular values, merely make it easier for the Islamists to portray the left as part of an “infidel”, “secularist” conspiracy of the “oppressors” against the most impoverished sections of society. They repeat the mistakes made by the left in Algeria and Egypt when they praised regimes that were doing nothing for the mass of people as “progressive’ – mistakes that enabled the Islamists to grow. And they forget that any support the state gives to secularist values is only contingent: when it suits it, it will do a deal with the more conservative of the Islamists to impose bits of the shariah – especially the bits which inflict harsh punishment on people – in return for ditching the radicals with their belief in challenging oppression. This is what happened in Pakistan under Zia and the Sudan under Nimeiry, and it is apparently what the Clinton adminstration has been advising the Algerian generals to do.

But socialists cannot give support to the Islamists either. That would be to call for the swapping of one form of oppression for another, to react to the violence of the state by abandoning the defence of ethnic and religious minorities, women and gays, to collude in scapegoating that makes it possible for capitalist exploitation to continue unchecked providing it takes “Islamic” forms. It would be to abandon the goal of independent socialist politics, based on workers in struggle organising all the oppressed and exploited behind them, for a tail-ending of a petty bourgeois utopianism which cannot even succeed in its own terms.”

The Islamists are not our allies. They are representatives of a class which seeks to influence the working class, and which, in so far as it succeeds, pulls workers either in the direction of futile and disastrous adventurism or in the direction of a reactionary capitulation to the existing system – or often to the first followed by the second.”

Naturally one would say that Islamist movements are in theory and in practice demonstrably reactionary. Nor the central importance of secularism for socialists. As an explanation it lacks the central role in Islamism of the pious national bourgeoisie. Nor the irreconcilable principle of democratic Marxists that one would never align with such groups.  But at least Harman did not exalt Islamists as automatically on the ‘right side’ of ‘anti-imperialism’.

Unfortunately the third aspect of Harman’s SWP’s work (below) shows just how far they had gone down the road of treating social movements as fodder for recruitment. After the 1970s the SWP, stuck in a permanent round of recruitment through moving campaigns, period purges of anyone awkward, and ‘get rich quick’ schemes. That is winning central positions in perceived rising trends of political unrest. Their ‘united front’ strategy meant co-operation with anyone who seemed to be going in the direction of opposing the existing political system. Or at least who had a vaguely radical sound.

This example explains how the Party saw the one-time important ‘anti-Globalisation’ wave.

Spontaneity, Strategy, Politics 2004. (here)

” In other words, a visible revolutionary organisation is a necessity, not an optional extra. Its members need to take part in the wider struggles and operate through party groups in localities and workplaces. They have to organise people around them through regular paper sales and draw them to meetings. And the discussion cannot just be about immediate tactics, but has to raise the question of transforming society in its totality, of revolution, not reform. Only in this way can we move towards fulfilling the full potential of the last five years—towards overthrowing this system and creating a better one.”

In fact in Britain the ‘anti-gloablisation’ movement was a heteroclite mixture of well-meaning NGOs, other left groups, individuals (Ken Livingstone onwards), fading magazines like Red Pepper,  and trade unions searching for new blood and inspired by anti-globalisation unrest in other countries which and genuine impact. It equally involved cranks of a variety of  stripes (Greens, animal rights nutters, onwards), all wrapped in an unwieldy Social Forum network, run in the interests of grandstanding various large egos. The SWP failed to get many recruits from this pool and turned to other fishing grounds. What Marxism, in the sense of basing politics on the self-activity of the masses, remained was soon channelled into the ever-turning priorities of sustaining the organisation. We might say that the SWP’s version of Leninism resembled a business plan, constantly drawing up not SWOTs (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) but OTs – Opportunities and Threats. Harman either instigated or, at the very least, connived, in this development. That is, under a lot of guff about the Party as the People’s Tribune.

The Respect Party was the culmination of this approach, aligning right up with the extreme-right-wing Islamists of the East London Mosque.  Of which it is hardly necessary to add further comment.

In conclusion, for all these remarks, Harman had a lot to offer. His original standpoint was not far from genuine democratic Marxism. That he, and the SWP, evolved into the hysterical dead-end we see today, requires more explanation than can be put into a few pages. One might feel that it’s a shame Harman bound himself to the SWP political project so thoroughly. That intense committment would have been better spent elsewhere. But, then, that is not a matter for us to choose.

Written by Andrew Coates

November 8, 2009 at 11:43 am

Posted in Left, Marxism, SWP

Tagged with ,

11 Responses

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  1. This new world order is sounding more scary all the time!

    Brian Hill

    November 8, 2009 at 12:02 pm

  2. Three points.

    1/ You refer to Jim Higgins as if he were an opponent of what you describe as the ‘Bolshevization’ of IS. This is not the case as Higgins was fully in favour of moving IS to a more structured and democratic regime in late 1968.

    2/ In discussing The Prophet and the Proletariat you write “Harman indeed engaged in some superficial class analysis of Islamism (neglecting its strong bourgeois roots and pro-mercantile and state bureaucratic capitalist direction).” For the good reason that an earlier article in the ISJ had made exactly these point and Harman did not need to repeat Marfleets work which he was in any case replying to.

    3/ You write “Naturally one would say that Islamist movements are in theory and in practice demonstrably reactionary. Nor the central importance of secularism for socialists. As an explanation it lacks the central role in Islamism of the pious national bourgeoisie. Nor the irreconcilable principle of democratic Marxists that one would never align with such groups”

    A point that history refutes Andrew and a position that stands in opposition to the views of Lenin, Trotsky and the revolutionary Comintern. Or am I mistaken that the Comintern saw fit to look favourably on Pan-Islamism and the Khilifat movement as having an anti-imperialist dynamic?

    Facts Andrew facts refute your liberal humanism.


    November 8, 2009 at 4:30 pm

  3. tragic news for the third world socialists. we really salute to crish,s contribution

    kuldip singh

    November 8, 2009 at 4:39 pm

  4. Good points Nep, particularly re. the actual record of Marxists and islamist movements and anti-imperialism. M. Coates’ seems a funny sort of Marxism.


    November 8, 2009 at 6:46 pm

  5. “Harman indeed engaged in some superficial class analysis of Islamism (neglecting its strong bourgeois roots and pro-mercantile and state bureaucratic capitalist direction)”

    Oddly thats what I thought the article was about. In fact one of the more interesting parts of the article for those who have read the relevent academic literature is the way in which he emphasises that the Islamists didn’t just draw their support base from the ‘traditional’ social classes. As for the rest the differences in politics are so great as (apparently) to preclude rational discussion (as evidenced by the thread over at socialist unity referred to). If you could clear up for me how the two academics libelled Peter, I’d really like to hear about it (because I’d really like to know).


    November 9, 2009 at 2:56 am

  6. If Mr Game would care to look on ‘Socialist Unity’ and ‘Harry’s Place’ and even Peter Thatchell’s own webpage, he will find the whole story.

    Sue R

    November 9, 2009 at 10:49 am

  7. Mike if you think that if Lenin was in favour of Pan-Islamism that refutes my argument then perhaps you would benefit from some liberal humanism principles about arguing to the issue and not from authority.

    In fact it, which I would qualify with Lenin’s own argument about the reactionary role of religious institutions – which stand on their own not because he said it – any support for ‘anti-imperialist’ movements led by religious figures. The whole episode was one reasons for the legacy of the ‘stans’ dicatorships – that is a reluctance to confront and reform Islamic traditonal culture.

    I was referrring to Higgen’s pamphlet, I am happy to stand corrected that he believed the IS – before the SWP was ever created – was moving in a democratic direction, though I would think that John Palmer and Richard Kuper may ahve something to say on this.

    Johng, I have read most of the same books. Harman never properly reocognised the centrality of the pious fraction of the national (and bureaucratic) bourgeoisie to Islamism (obviously this varies across different countries) – his whole tenor was to confuse popular resonsance with class political sides.Item: Turkey. Not to mention that he tended to place specifically ideological issues – which to his merit he recognises – as secondary to political and economic ones.

    Andrew Coates

    November 9, 2009 at 12:24 pm

  8. 45 years ago, he was far more critical on less reactionary “thirdworldist” movements


    November 9, 2009 at 1:01 pm

  9. on Lenin’s approach: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/dec/03.htm

    But under no circumstances ought we to fall into the error of posing the religious question in an abstract, idealistic fashion, as an “intellectual” question unconnected with the class struggle, as is not infrequently done by the radical-democrats from among the bourgeoisie. It would be stupid to think that, in a society based on the endless oppression and coarsening of the worker masses, religious prejudices could be dispelled by purely propaganda methods. It would be bourgeois narrow-mindedness to forget that the yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society. No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat, if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism. Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.

    That is the reason why we do not and should not set forth our atheism in our Programme; that is why we do not and should not prohibit proletarians who still retain vestiges of their old prejudices from associating themselves with our Party. We shall always preach the scientific world-outlook, and it is essential for us to combat the inconsistency of various “Christians”. But that does not mean in the least that the religious question ought to be advanced to first place, where it does not belong at all; nor does it mean that we should allow the forces of the really revolutionary economic and political struggle to be split up on account of third-rate opinions or senseless ideas, rapidly losing all political importance, rapidly being swept out as rubbish by the very course of economic development.


    November 9, 2009 at 1:10 pm

  10. […] for Chris Harman: Michael Rosen, Andrew Coates, Jim Denham, Histomatist. Gistomatist rounds up other obituaries from SWPers, but these are the […]

    Trot notes « Poumista

    November 13, 2009 at 2:09 pm

  11. […] * Progressive Labor Party (PLP): Army Occupies Strategic Hamlet of Watts (1965) * Artikel von Chris Harman, der letzte Woche im Alter von 66 Jahren starb: ** Osagyefo Pensant (1964) ** Nobly Wrong (1964) ** […]

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