By John Molyneux
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Chris Harman: Selected Writings

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Chris Harman, Bookmarks, £16.99
Issue 349

When Chris Harman died so unexpectedly in Cairo last November, the whole international socialist movement lost one of its most outstanding writers and theoreticians. This makes the rapid publication of this first volume of Chris’s Selected Writings especially welcome.

For older comrades it is the chance to revisit many articles that played an important role in the political life of the revolutionary socialist movement in Britain and internationally. For the young it is a chance to find out what the oldies were making such a fuss about. It is greatly to be hoped that this book will find a wide readership among the new generation of Marxists emerging in recent years. What is to be found here is a consistently brilliant application of the Marxist method to the analysis of history and the class struggle across the board.

Harman was extraordinarily prolific. He wrote relentlessly for about 45 years, producing six major books, including the massive A People’s History of the World, numerous pamphlets and almost literally innumerable articles, many of which were major theoretical interventions in the journal International Socialism. These two planned volumes will only scratch the surface but nevertheless are an excellent selection.

This book gives a good idea of the amazing range of Harman’s output: from contemporary economics to ancient society, from women’s liberation to climate change, from philosophy to student struggle and the 1981 riots. He was a theorist who recognised no academic or artificial boundaries to his work.

It also brings out his unwavering fidelity to revolutionary Marxist principles. Specific concrete analyses and strategic and tactical assessments change and develop, as they must for anyone not in the grip of sclerotic dogmatism, but from the earliest article here, Hungary 1956 (1966), to the most recent, The Rate of Profit in the World Today (2009), both the commitment to socialist revolution and the overall theoretical framework of classical Marxism (plus Antonio Gramsci, Tony Cliff and Mike Kidron) remain the same.

Over the years Harman developed the habit of producing exactly the theoretical article required by a particular political conjuncture. This would then acquire a special status in the minds of those of us who read it as the article that clarified that moment. This selection contains, in my estimation, five of these (“Women’s Liberation and Revolutionary Socialism”, “Party and Class”, “Russia: How the Revolution was Lost”, “The Eastern Bloc” and “The Prophet and the Proletariat”). I will comment on two of them.

The great struggles of 1968 produced an international wave of rather confused, semi-anarchist, semi-socialist libertarianism, and also brought the International Socialists (IS) our first serious growth (we reached about 1,000 members). At the same time these struggles posed very clearly the need for a revolutionary party. Cliff responded to this situation by issuing a call for IS – up to then a loose federal organisation – to adopt democratic centralism and the goal of building a Leninist party. This generated a heated, many-sided debate in the IS group. Chris’s “Party and Class” article used his extensive reading of Lenin and his already developed knowledge of Gramsci to both raise the whole theoretical level of the debate and win it decisively. The article retains its relevance 40 years later.

“The Prophet and the Proletariat” is an analysis of so-called “Islamic fundamentalism” which Harman rightly prefers to call “Islamism”. When it was written in 1994 Islam was fast replacing communism as the Western ruling classes’ ideological enemy of choice, though Islamophobia had not reached anything like the proportions it has assumed in the “war on terror”. It was also a phenomenon that generated immense confusion on the left. For a while some Stalinists tried to treat Islamism as simply a form of nationalist anti-imperialism which should be given uncritical support. Others, like the influential Fred Halliday, denounced it as fascist, and therefore supported Western military intervention against it, while still others argued that US imperialism and Islamism were equally bad and should be equally opposed.

Harman rejected all these positions. In a carefully argued materialist analysis he examined the social and class roots of Islamism showing how these shaped its complex response to imperialism. This article played an absolutely crucial role in Britain and internationally in enabling our tendency to establish a correct orientation to Islamism even before 9/11 and thus to play a major role in the anti-war movement.

Many of the short articles are also gems and there is a splendid and educative introduction by Colin Barker. Roll on the second volume.

Selected Writings is published by Bookmarks for £16.99 (or £15 if purchased direct from the Bookmarks bookshop).

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