Chris Harman: A man of political clarity

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I first met Chris in London just before Marxism 1990. My first impression was that he seemed argumentative and particularly so towards me, a former orthodox Trotskyist with a mishmash of vague ideas.

I had accepted the theory of state capitalism only a year before, right after the massacre at Tiananmen Square.

But my first impression was wrong. As the days at Marxism passed by, I found that he was only stressing political clarity. In fact, Tony Cliff and other leading Socialist Workers Party members were also doing this. This made perfect sense to me, given the total ideological confusion on the left as the Eastern European Stalinist regimes began to collapse.

I met Chris again when he visited South Korea with his partner, Talat Ahmed, in late July 1991. We all found him warm - he was attentive to a friend of mine who had lost half his sight while in military service (South Korea still has conscription). During his stay in Seoul Chris educated us in the basic ideas of the International Socialist Tendency, including the theories of state capitalism, deflected permanent revolution, the permanent arms economy and, crucially, socialism from below.

We all clearly remember him saying that Russia was on the verge of either great revolt or reactionary coup d'├ętat. He was right! In mid-August, ten days after Chris left Seoul, Russia was rocked by a coup followed by revolt.

Because Chris had educated us particularly intensively on the so-called "Russian Question", we were well prepared to deal with the events that unfolded in the Soviet Union. Our group grew rapidly from about 25 members to 200 in less than six months. In early 1992 the security police assaulted us, using the infamous National Security Act. They somehow found out that Chris had educated us, and as a result the state prosecution wrote in their bill of indictment that Chris was the leader of our group.

Our leader Chris visited Seoul again in 2005 and 2009. This time he spoke to a much bigger audience - some 600 at one meeting in 2005. That year in particular he could speak to a newly radicalised young generation in the aftermath of mass demonstrations the year before. Chris was well known to them for his magnum opus, A People's History of the World, and after attending his meeting on the current economic crisis they said he was a luminary.

After this year's visit, Chris and Talat left for China. Chris seemed perfectly healthy. We thought he would live till he was 90 and still can't believe he is dead. A comrade of mine was reminded of the time when, in 1999, she cooked a Korean-style chicken dish for Chris, Talat and other Korean comrades at Chris's home. She remembers Chris sucking his thumb, fascinated by a new taste. She also remembers his innocent smile, as we all do.


Choi Il-bung is a member of All Together, a South Korean group belonging to the International Socialist Tendency