On the weekend of 7-8 November, immediately after Chris Harman’s death, a meeting of about 1,000 students from all over Greece took place in Athens. It was organised by EAAK, the group that had played the leading role in the magnificent wave of faculty occupations that shook Greece in 2006 and 2007. On the news that Chris had died, this usually very unruly body decided unanimously to pay tribute. Delegates stood up in a minute’s silence to honour the memory of an internationally recognised revolutionary Marxist.
This is an indication of how well known and respected Chris Harman was, not just among people of his generation in Greece but also among young people. Another indication is the obituaries in the Greek press. Eleftherotypia is the daily paper with the second highest circulation and the most widely read by left wingers. It carried a column honouring Chris on Saturday 14 November, just as the celebrations for the 36th anniversary of the polytechnic uprising that shook the Greek junta were starting. Eleftherotypia had interviewed Chris on many occasions when he was in Athens for the annual Marxism event organised by SEK, the sister organisation of the SWP in Greece.
Moisis Litsis, a leading economic journalist on the same paper, has repeatedly acknowledged his debt to Chris’s writings on Marxist economics. The Greek edition of The Economics of the Madhouse is a best seller in Marxistiko Vivliopoleio, the Marxist bookshop in Athens.
With the onset of the new crisis of capitalism, it is not surprising that Chris had such a wide audience in Greece as an economics writer. However, his Greek comrades perhaps owe even more to his work as a historian.
Greek nationalism enjoys a special advantage over its rivals. All nationalisms tend to claim a privileged position in world history. Glorious ancestors, heroic deeds, myths stretching as far back as anyone can imagine – this is the stuff on which all nationalists thrive. The difference in the Greek case is that there is broader acceptance of these claims. The idea that Athens is the cradle of civilisation is not just a notion held by the Greek ruling class; it has been the accepted wisdom of European elites since the 19th century. Marxists opposing Greek nationalism have their work cut out. Arguing that the class divide is more important than the national divide is not an easy task anywhere in the world, but Greece stands out in this respect.
When the break-up of Yugoslavia started in the early 1990s, there was a wave of chauvinist hysteria in Greece aimed against the Republic of Macedonia. There were massive government-sponsored rallies claiming that the name Macedonia belongs to the Greek nation. As revolutionary socialists we publicly opposed the threat that Greece might invade the Republic of Macedonia under the pretext of a disputed name. Five of us were taken to court for high treason and the charges were only withdrawn after the government collapsed in late 1993. So when Chris Harman wrote his essay on the return of the national question in International Socialism in autumn 1992, we were thrilled to have such a powerful argument on our side. The article was translated and published as a pamphlet in Greek and has been an important weapon for internationalists in Greece since then.
The same is true of Chris’s essay, “The Prophet and the Proletariat”. Anti-Islamic bigotry has been a constant feature of Greek nationalism because of the rivalry between Greek and Turkish capitalism. It received a boost when George Bush launched his crusade against “Islamic terrorists” and opposing it has been very important for the left in Greece. The importance was reinforced again more recently when Israel invaded Gaza. Solidarity with the Palestinian cause has traditionally been strong in Greece, but it was necessary to clarify the nature of Hamas in order to revive it. The Greek edition of Harman’s work on this question played a crucial role in this effort.
Just how important it was to have clarity on the issue could be seen again when we were faced with the scandal of the Greek and British secret services colluding against Pakistani immigrants who they falsely suspected of terrorist activities. Fifteen were abducted and tortured before being released in the summer of 2005. The leader of the Pakistani community in Greece, Javied Aslam, was jailed and threatened with deportation for bringing this scandal to light. It took a vigorous solidarity campaign to save him. The comrades who led this campaign were armed with Chris’s ideas.
Chris Harman was such a powerful Marxist intellectual that it would be easy to concentrate on his writings and forget Chris the activist and party builder. But for those of us who worked with him since the 1960s, this is the aspect that stands out.
Greece saw a massive explosion of struggle in the early 1960s. The streets of Athens were dominated by demonstrators for 70 days in the summer of 1965. That movement was defeated and a military dictatorship was established in 1967. Many radicalised young people were exiles in Western Europe at the time. Chris Harman at the London School of Economics (LSE) was working politically alongside a group of such people, not only in the occupation of LSE and the anti-war demonstrations but also at the occupation of the Greek embassy in April 1967, just days after the military coup. It is from this milieu that the Organisation for Socialist Revolution, the forerunner of SEK, was started in London and began to build in Greece. We would print our paper in the Socialist Worker printshop and International Socialist comrades would smuggle it into Greece in suitcases with false bottoms, pretending to be tourists. Thus we came to have an influence among the students who organised the polytechnic uprising in 1973.
I remember speaking with Chris at a fringe meeting of students in Britain after the uprising and he was happy that “we brought some substance into the rarefied atmosphere of student politics”. He continued to bring substance to Greek politics for many years.
Years later, at the beginning of the 1990s, the Greek group had grown significantly and we were debating the way forward. Chris’s advice was simple but crucial: produce a more regular paper, fortnightly, rather than monthly. It will not only raise your ability to spread revolutionary ideas but it will improve the tempo of your intervention, the discipline of your branches and the orientation of your young student members towards the class.
We took this advice seriously and never regretted it. Workers’ Solidarity, our paper, went weekly in 1993 and its main inspiration came from Chris’s famous article on the revolutionary press written in International Socialism in the summer of 1984. As with so many other things, Chris thought that editing a revolutionary paper should be solidly based in theory and historical example. He practised this and urged others to do the same.
We can trace this steadiness and perseverance in building a revolutionary party back to his early writings on party and class. The article under that title that appeared in a booklet alongside texts by Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas and Leon Trotsky was a guiding thread. This was not just because of the clear exposition of the relationship between party building and the revolutionary project of the working class, but also because it showed how Chris practised internal party democracy.
Chris was a young revolutionary then, perhaps the best student of Tony Cliff, but he would not shrink from criticising Cliff for letting his “desire to honour a great revolutionary” (in this case Rosa Luxemburg) “overcome a genuine scientific evaluation”. That is the spirit of Chris Harman’s legacy to a new generation of anti-capitalists continuing the struggle in the 21st century.
Panos Garganas is the editor of Workers’ Solidarity, Socialist Worker’s sister paper in Greece.