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Joseph Choonara

Another side of Chris Harman

(Winter 2010)

From International Socialism 2 : 125, Winter 2010.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

For those of us who joined the Socialist Workers Party from the mid-1990s – too late to have worked closely with Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas, Paul Foot or Mike Kidron – Chris Harman played a special role. For one thing, he seemed more than anyone else to embody what had drawn us towards the International Socialist tradition, not just the theories of state capitalism, deflected permanent revolution and the permanent arms economy, but also the possibility of workers’ self-emancipation that these theories helped to maintain.

He was, in addition, an encyclopaedia of Marxist theory and practice. Besides his own enormous output of books and articles, and his relentless schedule of meetings, Chris was indirectly responsible for much of the remainder of the output of the organisation. Personally, I discussed almost everything I wrote with Chris, who would unfailingly suggest a sharper way of framing my main point or some historic example that would clinch the argument. If I was completely wide of the mark, he would pause for a while and say, “Yes, but you have to think it through” [1], before embarking on a detailed elaboration of the topic in question.

For Chris, such discussions often meant puncturing illusions in some new and fashionable theory or theorist. He would show that the emperor was not merely naked, but that he was really the same emperor from many years ago, and that the invisible garments were pretty much identical. [2] But Chris was not simply a defender of a political tradition. He also deepened and extended it. He was able to combine his rich knowledge of Marxism [3] with a rare sense of iconoclasm and disregard for academic specialisation.

I want to emphasise Chris’s impact in just one of the areas in which he contributed, that of Marxist political economy.

At those points in his life when he felt the need to engage with this field, often moments of economic crisis when there were pressing political reasons to do so, he read extensively on the subject. His overriding feeling, as he put it in at a meeting he gave in autumn 2007, was that much of what he read fell into one of two errors. Either it was bogged down in interminable debates on value theory that became almost theological in their abstractness (“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” was a favourite analogy) or it was based on detailed empirical studies that were not grounded in a serious understanding of Capital. The hallmark of great political economy was, for him, that it bridged the gap between theory and the empirical reality of the system as it developed in time. That was definitely the hallmark of Chris’s output in this field. [4]

Even the most basic arguments about value, contained in the opening chapters of the first volume of Capital, had to be related to the system as a whole. Capitalism is a system characterised by both a division between capitalists and labourers, and divisions among the capitalists themselves. Chris argued that you could only make sense of Marx’s concept of value if you understood the pressure that different units of capital put on each other. It was this competitive pressure that produced the drive to accumulate, forcing capitalists to behave as capitalists, to exploit workers and pump the profits squeezed out of them back into the system. [5] The point was made particularly sharply in a series of critiques of and exchanges with Ernest Mandel, a key theorist of the Fourth International:

Marx’s original starting point was alienated labour, the situation in which the products of man’s labour appear as independent forces, constraints on his activity. In its developed form this implies the separation of the worker from control of the means of production, expropriation of the actual producers, the creation of a proletariat ... Competition between rival owners of the means of production ... forces each to try and resist the inroads of the other by continually expanding the means of production. This establishes a relationship between the different accumulations of alienated labour making up the competing means of production that defines each as capital, and their owners as capitalists. [6]

The centrality of alienated labour and the need to penetrate the mystified surface appearance of capitalism created by commodity exchange to grasp its real relations featured in many of Chris’s major writings on economics. This forms a bridge to his more general philosophical commitment to a “humanist Marxism” of the kind that emerged as cracks appeared in the Stalinist monolith from 1956 onwards.

Once capitalism was understood as a system of competing “accumulations of alienated labour” it was possible to get to grips with both the dynamism of the system and its inner contradictions:

Marx’s own approach was ... to identify the individual elements of the system through analysis and then to show how they interacted dynamically, changing one another in the process. That is why he insisted his method was dialectical, concerned with interaction and mutual transformation. Once you miss these interconnections, you miss the dynamic of the system ... For Marx, the categories he developed were significant because they enabled you to see the system as a self-contradicting totality, which is in a permanent process of transformation – a transformation that must affect the very categories of analysis themselves. [7]

Such an analysis had profound political implications during the Cold War. For if the process of competitive accumulation by rival blocs of capital was placed at the centre of analysis, the Soviet Union after 1928 could be understood as a variant of capitalism:

Every change in production processes in the West will force changes in production processes in Russia, and vice-versa. Accumulation in the West will force accumulation in Russia (and again, vice-versa). In other words, a total system of reified relations is set up in which the anarchic and unplanned interaction of the products of labour determines the labour process, in which dead labour dominates living labour, in which every concrete act of labour is related to abstract labour – on a world scale – in which although there may be many partial negations of the law of value these are on the basis of the law of value. [8]

Or as he summarised his position four decades later:

The organisation of production inside the USSR might involve the putting together of different use values (so much labour, so many physically distinct raw materials, such and such a particular sort of machine) to produce further use values. But what mattered to the ruling bureaucracy was how these use values measured up to the similar conglomerations of use values produced inside the great corporations of the West. And that meant comparing the amounts of labour used in the USSR to the labour used in the Western corporations. Or, to put it in Marx’s terms, production within the USSR was subject to the law of value operating on the global scale. [9]

While Cliff had pioneered this analysis of Russia as a “bureaucratic state capitalism” [10], and Kidron had drawn out some of the wider implications of the approach for the global economic system [11], it was Chris who produced path-breaking studies of the state capitalist regimes in Eastern Europe and explained both the dynamism that was possible in these economies for a time, and their own particular internal contradictions that led them into crisis.

Behind the illusion of smooth and planned expansion the “relentless drive to accumulate had as a necessary by-product disorganisation, chaos and waste”. [12] And in the background was a tendency towards over-accumulation similar to that in the West, as a growing quantity of plant and machinery was required to produce a certain level of output. [13] The Eastern Bloc countries might be particular variants of capitalism, and as such the peculiarities of their dynamic had to be explored, but they were capitalist nonetheless. They had to be understood, and condemned, in those terms. [14]

If Chris was scathing about those who had illusions in Eastern state capitalism, he was just as dismissive of fashionable notions about the Western state. He rejected the idea that the growth of state intervention in the years following the Second World War represented a move towards socialism in the West. He also challenged the view that the world had entered a new phase in which the state’s role would diminish in the face of globalisation. The state had become everywhere a key component in the process of capitalist accumulation – training and maintaining the required forms of labour power through the education and health systems [15], intervening directly in the economy and clashing militarily with its rivals on a global scale. [16] It was this that informed Chris’s attitude to “productive” and “unproductive” labour. Marx had written that labour was productive if it produced surplus value, the source of profit, for the capitalist. Chris agreed, but also argued that in modern capitalist societies much other labour, including that of many public sector employees, was best regarded as “indirectly productive” because it was a prerequisite for accumulation to take place.

State intervention might alter the dynamic of capitalism in important ways but it could not remove the system’s tendency towards crisis. Chris took seriously Marx’s description of the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall:

This is in every respect the most important law of modern political economy, and the most essential for understanding the most difficult relations. It is the most important law from the historical standpoint. It is a law which, despite its simplicity, has never before been grasped and, even less, consciously articulated. [17]

Chris elaborated and defended this law in the series of articles, written at the start of the 1980s, “not merely to show that capitalism was crisis prone, but also to grasp the character of the new period of crises the system entered in the mid-1970s”. [18] These later formed the basis for the book Explaining the Crisis. He returned to the subject in 2007, managing to produce an article on the subject just as signs of the current economic crisis began to emerge. [19] This was the first of many articles written in preparation for his final book, Zombie Capitalism, which represents the most rounded and complete presentation of his economic thought.

The enthusiasm with which he engaged with two decades worth of Marxist economic theory since his previous major book on the subject should be evident from his illustrated talk, “Not all Marxism is Dogma”, reproduced in this issue of the journal, which must stand as the most comprehensive survey yet of recent studies of the profit rate.

However, to his enormous frustration, Chris found once more a gulf between most empirical studies of profit rates and the “pure” theoretical works that discussed Marx’s famous law. In particular, a number of works pointed out an abstract possibility that productivity increases could, over time, cheapen constant capital (plant, equipment, raw material, etc.), leading to rising rather than falling profit rates. [20] Chris insisted that in the real world capitalists had to recoup the cost of the constant capital they had actually invested in at the point they invested, not just the cost of the constant capital they could buy if they were purchasing it in the present: “You can’t build the houses of yesterday with the bricks of today.” It was during economic crises that constant capital could be driven down in price in a systematic way, through bankruptcies and the dumping of goods, allowing surviving capitalists to obtain their investments more cheaply, boosting profitability and restoring the system to “health”.

In other words, the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and the “countervailing tendencies” discussed by Marx in the third volume of Capital, do not operate to push profit rates up and down in a smooth, uninterrupted manner. They are tendencies that are worked out explosively, through crises.

But the changes undergone by the system as it aged did lead to changes in the working out of crises. Chris had first explored this in his defence of the theory of the Permanent Arms Economy that had been developed by Mike Kidron. The theory sought to explain the duration of the post-war boom by showing how surplus value that could otherwise have been accumulated, raising the organic composition of capital and thus putting pressure on profit rates, was leaking out of the productive sphere and into arms expenditure and other “waste” areas. [21] While this could postpone the crisis, it could not prevent it altogether. Profit rates did fall, even if they fell more slowly. [22]

By the time he wrote Zombie Capitalism there were new elements deferring the crisis. Chris argued that capitalism had never fully resolved the underlying crisis of profitability that had emerged at the end of the post-war boom. [23] But because the units of capital had grown far larger over the course of the 20th century, the ruling class was reluctant to risk the “creative destruction” of a major crisis. The failure of one giant firm, linked to countless others, could bring down healthy as well as unhealthy chunks of the system. Again and again states stepped in to bail out failing companies. The problems persisted and led to further changes to the face of capitalism. Chris grasped that the bloated financial system, which on the surface appeared to be a source of dynamism, was a product of the weakness of profitability in the wider economy.

Financial bubbles formed as capital shifted away from productive areas of the economy. This masked the underlying problems by creating possibilities for capitalists to grab short-term paper profits and by bankrolling a growing level of consumer debt that helped provide the demand needed to keep the system going. Financialisation also led to new forms of instability. Chris’s contribution was both to grapple with the altered dynamic of the system [24] and to reassert, crucially, that the crisis that broke out in 2007–8 was a systemic crisis of capitalism rooted in sustained low profitability, not merely a banking or financial crisis. It was for this reason that he quickly realised just how serious the crisis was, and what political possibilities it might throw up, even while explaining that it was not possible to predict in advance how deep or long it would be. [25]

Chris’s interventions in political economy, as elsewhere, were not simply original. They were often made against the current and, while he was never personally offensive to his opponents, he was prepared to engage in a sharp polemic. Occasionally it might be suggested that he show a little more restraint towards his fellow leftists. Chris would have none of it: the important debates needed to be had out. The tributes paid to him show just how deeply he was respected as a result – not just by his closest allies, but also by his sometime adversaries.

One final point about Chris’s work deserves to be stressed. None of it was undertaken for self-aggrandisement. During the time I knew him he was increasingly concerned with developing and training a new generation of Marxists. From the late 1990s a growing audience for anti-capitalist ideas emerged. Chris recognised how, as the movement began to face new challenges along with old debates in new forms, some of that audience could be won towards Marxist ideas. [26] He loved the rows this produced as the young heretics of yesterday turned into the rounded Marxists of today, and he relished the part he played in that process. The young heretics, in turn, gravitated towards him, because they knew where to look for a good argument.

Chris was unique and entirely irreplaceable. To wait for another like him to emerge would be thoroughly un-Marxist. But the legacy he leaves includes a growing generation of articulate and active revolutionaries who can begin, collectively, to fill the gap created by his death. For one who devoted his life to building a socialist organisation imbued with the same passion and clarity he himself displayed, there can be no greater testament.

* * *


1. This was one of his catchphrases and, for a long time, the title of his column in Socialist Review. Anyone wanting to understand Chris’s impact on younger comrades need only read a few of these columns and imagine contributions of the same clarity and sharpness day after day in the offices of Socialist Worker or International Socialism.

2. See Chris’s article on Althusser in this issue of International Socialism for an example.

3. This was partly gleaned during his time studying, but never completing, a PhD under Ralph Miliband (father of the current foreign secretary). Miliband was a “kind but hopeless supervisor. He just signed the paperwork each year so I could carry on with my studies. Meanwhile I read everything published in English at that time by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Gramsci.”

4. Chris was always happy to acknowledge those whose theoretical work he admired and those who conducted the empirical studies he drew on. The latter were particularly essential, as mathematics did not sit well with him. He consoled himself with the fact that Marx managed to botch some of his numerical work in the manuscripts of Capital.

5. Towards the end of his life, Chris was delighted to rediscover a section in one of the unpublished manuscripts of Capital that clearly expressed the way that value production flows out of the dynamism of the system as a totality. This section, Results of the Direct Production Process, was published as an appendix in the Penguin edition of Capital, Volume One, and is available online at

6. Harman, 1969, p. 36.

7. Harman, 1978, pp. 80–81. Whatever else changed in Chris’s analysis over the years, his hatred of scholastic jargon that confused more than it explained was a constant. A footnote to this article snarled, “‘Valorisation’ is the trendy new translation of Marx’s term Verwertung.” Three decades later he was still annoyed. A footnote to his final book informed readers, “‘Valorisation’ is the French translation of the German term ... Verwertung. ‘Valorisation’ in French means an expansion in the value of something ... But the general English meaning of the word is different, meaning simply ‘fixing the price or value of a commodity’ ... All this is confusing for newcomers to Marx’s writings – and encourages an academicist tendency to dense, often nearly unintelligible, expositions of Marx’s analyses” – Harman, 2009a, p. 355.

8. Harman, 1969, p. 38.

9. Harman, 2009a, p. 176.

10. Cliff, 2003.

11. Kidron, 1970, 1974.

12. Harman, 2009a, p. 177.

13. Harman, 2009a, p. 203.

14. His final piece for Socialist Review entitled State Capitalism – The Theory that Fuels the Practice is a great summary of the theory, written on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall that vindicated many of his arguments, but aimed at a new audience, unaware of the crucial role the theory played-Harman, 2009b.

15. Harman, 2008, pp. 103–104, 112–116.

16. Harman, 1996, 2003. These two articles, on globalisation and imperialism, both brilliant summaries, have saved the skin of countless revolutionary socialist undergraduates too busy demonstrating to finish their essays. See also Harman, 2009a, pp. 255–275.

17. Marx, 1973, p. 748.

18. Harman, 1999, p. 11.

19. Harman, 2007.

20. Readers unfamiliar with Marx’s basic concepts can consult Harman, 2007, Harman, 2009a, or Choonara, 2009, for details.

21. Harman, 1999, pp. 75–154; Harman, 2009a, pp. 161–190.

22. See the review of Zombie Capitalism, Kliman, 2009.

23. Harman, 2007, p. 150.

24. Harman, 2009a, pp. 277/ndash;304.

25. As he frequently complained, “If I say it’s not as bad as the 1930s I’ll get attacked for being overly optimistic; if I say it is as bad I’ll get attacked for being pessimistic; and if I say that I don’t know I’ll get attacked for being indecisive.” As it turned out, the series of analyses he produced in International Socialism and elsewhere, at each stage of the crisis, walked this tightrope brilliantly.

26. Harman, 2000, was, like so many of Chris’s articles, crucial in spelling out the implications of the political shift.

* * *


Cliff, Tony, 2003 [1948], The Nature of Stalinist Russia, in Selected Writings, Vol. 3 (Bookmarks).

Choonara, Joseph, 2009, Unravelling Capitalism: A Guide to Marxist Political Economy (Bookmarks).

Harman, Chris, 1969, The Inconsistencies of Ernest Mandel, International Socialism 41 (first series), December 1969.

Harman, Chris, 1978, Mandel’s Late Capitalism, International Socialism 1 (Summer 1978).

Harman, Chris, 1996, Globalisation: A Critique of a New Orthodoxy, International Socialism 73 (Winter 1996).

Harman, Chris, 1999 [1984], Explaining the Crisis (Bookmarks).

Harman, Chris, 2000, Anti-capitalism: Theory and Practice, International Socialism 88 (Autumn 2000).

Harman, Chris, 2003, Analysing Imperialism, International Socialism 99 (Summer 2003).

Harman, Chris, 2007, The Rate of Profit and the World Today, International Socialism 115 (Summer 2007).

Harman, Chris, 2008, Theorising Neoliberalism, International Socialism 117 (Winter 2008).

Harman, Chris, 2009a, Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx (Bookmarks).

Harman, Chris, 2009b, State Capitalism – The Theory that Fuels the Practice, Socialist Review, November 2009.

Kidron, Mike, 1970 [1968], Western Capitalism Since the War (Pelican).

Kidron, Mike, 1974, Capitalism and Theory (Pluto).

Kliman, Andrew, 2009, Pinning the Blame on the System, International Socialism 124 (Summer 2009).

Marx, Karl, 1973 [1858], Grundrisse (Penguin).

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