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‘Chris Harman: a life in struggle’

January 9, 2010

Ian Birchall has penned a tribute to Chris Harman, longstanding editor of Socialist Worker and, latterly, International Socialism Journal, who died late last year. Here’s a sample:

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.

(Birchall’s forthcoming biography of Tony Cliff is awaited with bated breath.) Largely as a result of Harman’s untimely death, I’d gone back to have a read of his excellent 1991 essay The State and capitalism today. It’s one of his best single papers. Its power comes from Harman’s nuanced consideration of globalisation as a phenomenon of the state, as much as of the market.

Rather than globalisation occurring through a simple state-market opposition, the latter ‘rolling back the former’ – as the ideologues of globalisation would have us believe occurs – the two are fused in new and innovative ways, transforming both. By viewing the process in this way, Harman indicates with great clarity the twin errors open to other analysts of global capitalism: of either privileging the market above the state, or seeing the state as largely unchanged and still superior to the market.

It’s a better essay, for my money, than his more explicit 1996 paper on Globalisation: a critique of the new orthodoxy, which tends – as some of his later work did also – towards too much of a view that the state remains largely unchanged in a globalised world, able to intervene in much the same and with much the same form as it always did. Nonetheless, the paper repays reading as a corrective to the more loopy flat-earth views out there. (If I get the time, I’ll return to Harman’s treatment of globalisation at greater length.)

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