What would Harman do?

What would Harman do?

What would Harman do?

Base and Superstructure

What would Chris Harman do? That is a question I often ask myself. Not sure if anyone’s ever described themselves as a ‘Harmanist’? Maybe I’m the first. I am certainly proud to make the claim that I at least aspire to see the world through his eyes, not that I think this is necessarily easy or that I always succeed.

No one, to the best of my knowledge, ever called themselves a Harmanist while he was alive. He would have hated it, naturally. He was in good company. Marx said he wasn’t a Marxist. No one called themselves Leninists in Lenin’s presence: he was a Marxist. Trotsky spurned the idea there was such a thing as Trotskyism, merely Bolshevik Leninism. What they all had in common was a commitment to scientific socialism. That means there was a shared method they all employed, one that allowed them (and allows all of us) to solve complex problems.

The Marxist method allows us to solve practical problems based on objective reality, a careful assessment of the totality, the interdependence of forces, the ever-changing nature of everything, and (in the social world) the key role played by conscious agents, organisations and institutions. It also allows us to introduce ourselves into the equation, thanks to our ability to mobilize certain forces ourselves. That is where democratic centralism comes to our rescue.

Lenin’s approach to political organisation is, to be frank, the living embodiment of all eleven of Marx’s Theses on Feurbach, especially the third one:

  • The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.
  • The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.

Gramsci and Lukacs both appreciated this fact, as did Trotsky. Rosa Luxemburg was in the process of grasping this fact, an epiphany that was only interrupted by her life being cut short by the social democratic agents of the capitalist state so beloved of all the allies of Richard Seymour: Andy Newman, John Chamberlain, Eddie Truman, Phil Burton-Cartledge, Chris Bambery.

While Richard Seymour’s hero (Louis Althusser) dismisses the Theses on Feurbach as ‘riddles’, Chris Harman grasped them as the key to unlocking the Marxist method. He was absolutely right. It is not irrelevant that everything Richard Seymour writes today exposes that he inhabits an entirely different tradition to that defended by Chris Harman, John Molyneux and all the aforementioned giants of scientific socialism.

The democratic centralist vanguard party explains why the Russian Revolution was successful while the German of 1919 to 1923 bit the dust like every other revolution of that period, many with objective opportunities every bit as fruitful. These revolutions were defeated just like every single revolution we have seen since. And every single member of Richard Seymour’s faction (the faction he has just lead off the Cliff) have no understanding of why these revolutions were defeated. This ignorance explains why no SWP loyalist should find it that painful to see the backs of these people. New comrades need to be recruited. And they need to be given the basic Marxist education that Seymour’s students failed to get. Get them reading Chris Harman. Now!

I have been a fan of Harman almost from the first time I heard him speak. Shortly after joining the SWP (1982), I discovered there was some obscure difference between Chris Harman and Alex Callinicos on philosophy. There was a short-lived set of debates in the ISJ and at meetings at Marxism. However, it all petered and no one seemed to notice that anything important had happened.

I was sufficiently impressed by what Harman argued that he convinced me to conduct my own independent research. I studied Lukacs. I studied Gramsci. I read most of the writings of all the revolutionary Marxist giants available in English: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky. I could see almost immediately what Harman was rabbiting on about. I wish he had not dropped this.

Harman (and John Molyneux also) taught me that the Marxist method was alive and well and a core part of the International Socialist tradition. This is the tradition that Richard Seymour and his acolytes have been trying to destroy these past months. Anyone who reads Richard Seymour’s apologetics for what he has been doing should be able to see for themselves that he would never have been able to pose as any kind of SWP intellectual if the culture inside the SWP had been raised to a deeper understanding of what Chris Harman had argued three decades ago.

I want to explain something that might be relevant. It is certainly noteworthy.

Of all the revolutionary Marxists I have listed, Lukacs stands out. The method to be found in History and Class Consciousness and his little booklet on Lenin are every bit as wonderful as Harman explained. However, Lukacs never left any significant body of political writings, nor any political achievements. We will search in vain for evidence of his having put his perfect appreciation of the relationship between theory and practice at the level of theory into practice. That separates Lukacs from Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and Gramsci.

Every one of the great Marxists did discuss their method now and then, although Luxemburg less explicitly than the others. However, every one of them placed a relatively low priority on explaining how they understood the method. Many of their best attempts to explain the method were not even published while they were still alive! These methodological writings seemed to be for helping themselves orientate towards reality than to teach anyone else who to perform their scientific socialist magic.

More has been placed into the public arena about Gramsci’s method because his long years of imprisonment gave him no opportunity to put his theory to the test of practice. So Gramsci did the next best thing: he wrote about the method. Better that than nothing, even if a lot of his ideas ended up getting mangled by the necessity of his having to write in a complex code to trick his fascist censors, and to allow him to explain his hostility to the ultra-left sectarianism of Stalin’s Third Period by pretending he was actually attacking Trotsky’s permanent revolution. A foolish ploy that did not help anyone. In trying to trick others, it is  pretty clear that Gramsci ended up confusing himself. The Prison Notebook are still worth reading though.

However, the Marxist method can be found in every paragraph that all these great Marxists wrote when they addressed political questions of the day. Indeed, it is there when they discuss anything at all. Their method was dialectical materialism and it is applicable even when dealing with the non human world. This ability to grasp the Marxist method can also be learnt, in my opinion, by familiarising yourself with pretty much anything that Chris Harman wrote.

And this is why the SWP should encourage all members to study Chris Harman. Given Richard Seymour’s faction fight, given his opposition to democratic centralism, given his ludicrous indifference to the role of the capitalist state, and his incomprehension of materialist dialectics, given his failure to appreciate the key role of the working class in the liberation of society (as opposed to the role of every other class), I would suggest that a very good place to for everyone to start would be Harman’s ‘The Lost Revolution. And if you’ve read it before, why not read it again? And read all his writings denouncing academic Marxism.

I would also recommend that the party dredges up several wonderful articles John Molyneux wrote many years ago tackling academic Marxism from the same Hegelian perspective. All this stuff is the antidote the party needs today to the petty bourgeois infection that goes by the name of Richard Seymour.

One final point. Harman repeatedly acknowledged that as the debate progressed, over the years Alex Callinicos shifted his ground, and always in the right direction, according to Chris Harman. I have to confess that I never paid that much attention to Alex’s writings, so I have no way of verifying if I would have agreed with Harman on this. I have no idea what Alex Callinicos’s attitude to these disputes is now. I would love it if he had fully embraced what Harman had been arguing consistently all those years ago. Even if he has not, it is never too late to learn. And even if Alex is still not ready to concede that Harman had been essentially correct about everything, other members of the party (in the central committee and others at all levels of the party) need to investigate this stuff and come to their own conclusions.

The SWP needs a lot more Chris Harmans. Since cloning is a non-starter, encouraging members to study Harman’s writings will do the trick.

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