on 28 September 2016
A REVIEW OF CHRIS HARMAN’S A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE WORLD
Having recently bought the late Chris Harman’s book, I have a number of fundamental criticisms to make, which might be helpful to potential readers. It must be said that the text is well written and presented and, as the title suggests, offers the reader a history of the world, which the author splits into seven parts, based on what must have been many hours of work. Described on one of the book’s title pages as “a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain”, Harman employs what is often referred to as a Marxist-Leninist, or historical materialist, methodology.
Whilst paying lip service to Marx, but only acknowledging grudgingly that Marx never used the term historical materialism, this Bolshevik approach was cobbled together from the writings of Engels, Plekhanov, Lenin and Trotsky. Harman repeatedly argues that all of the political, legal and cultural paraphernalia of a society can be reduced to its basic economic relationships. Using a single reference to an architectural metaphor by Marx, historical materialists argue that any society’s ideological superstructure is determined by its economic base. Such economic determinism is used throughout Harman’s text; whereas a more nuanced interpretation of Marx’s methodology, which owes much to Hegel’s dialectical approach, stresses such notions as totality and internal contractions. That a market economy cannot function without the existence of legally enforceable private property, suggests the only place in which the base and superstructure can be separated is in the human mind.
Moving on, we can address the question of whether Harman’s ambitious project does indeed provide a people’s history; noting that he is critical of a “history from below” approach which “can miss out…the interconnection of events” (iii). This people’s history theme is crucial because, on page after page, Harman offers statistics on how many people “from below”, i.e. workers or landless peasants, have been killed or injured whilst supporting causes which he associates with what he mystifyingly calls “the left”. Rather like some of the films of Ken Loach, as a Leninist, Harman gives the impression that, left to their own devices, workers are intellectually and culturally stunted, with little likelihood of ever creating a socialist society. Harman repeatedly tells us the working class needs the “leadership” of a vanguard party; for example, the desire to make a revolution, he explains, “requires a body of people with the will and understanding to turn that desire into reality”. He cites the “great bourgeois revolutions” led by “Cromwell’s New Model Army or Robespierre’s Jacobins”, and with regret he explains that “such bodies simply did not exist in Germany and Italy in the vital months of 1920”, (440). As a friend of mine, Jeremy Wright, has pointed out, amidst the 100 year anniversary of the battle of the Somme, the attitudes of Kitchener and Haig, who viewed their, largely working class, troops as a mere means to their end of victory over the enemy, seem all too relevant here. In support of his claims about the “leadership” role of the radical intellectual, Harman describes “Frederick Engels and Karl Marx”, in that order, as possessed of “personal genius” (126). Eschewing any discussion of the genetic and environmental issues involved, the label “genius” is often used by members of the radical intelligentsia to support their will to power over their less gifted rivals, such as members of royal families, major landowners or capitalist entrepreneurs. The founding member of Harman’s party, Tony Cliff, addressed a meeting which I attended in the 1980s, presenting himself as a reincarnation of Lenin, fantasising about issuing orders to the less intellectually capable, with the aim of establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat in Britain.
In support of my serious misgivings with regard to both the accuracy of Harman’s factual account of events in each of his book’s seven parts and the credibility and honesty of his interpretation of these events, I shall focus on two historical periods with which I am familiar. Firstly, the sections on prehistory contained in the Prologue and the chapter entitled the “Neolithic Revolution” and, secondly, the sections relating to the rise of Bolshevism contained in Part seven. Before moving to these topics, however, let me briefly mention that, given Harman’s party’s policy of seeking to recruit Asian youths as paper sellers, particularly those with a Muslim background, it is no surprise that he describes Islam as “one of the great world religions” (123). He steers clear of any discussion of the rich pre-Islamic history of Arabia, including polyandry and the active role of some women in the military and politics, as supported by archaeological and textual evidence. Similarly, Harman fails to link Islam to the need for an ideology to support the rise of Arab imperialism and compare this with the way in which imperial Rome eventually used Christianity for similar purposes.
Let us now move on to prehistory, noting that Harman relies heavily on the fanciful theories of the 19th century anthropologist Lewis Morgan. Based only on his contacts with the American Indian Iroquois tribe, Morgan’s views were politically useful for Engels and, to a lesser extent, Marx. Ignoring inconvenient recent research, using the term primitive communism, Harman repeats Morgan’s claim that earliest hunter-gatherers were members of tribes which were free of social class differentiation. These nomadic tribes, he argues, were egalitarian in terms of age and gender and had no notion of private property; only with the advent of early agriculture did class divisions and social inequality develop. Whilst there is more recent anthropological evidence to support this secularised fall from grace in the Garden of Eden thesis, there is also counter-evidence indicating that other hunter-gatherer tribes were not egalitarian. As Robert Kelly’s texts demonstrate, for many hunter-gatherers, those living around the North West coast of North America being the most obvious example, social hierarchy, including slavery and obligatory gift giving, was the norm.
A key problem with the anthropological evidence from remaining tribes is that their modes of being have been mediated by contact with outsiders. Similarly, because these nomads had so few possessions, there is little surviving archaeological evidence on the social formations of hunter-gatherers. We know that it was important for these tribes to restrict the number of people in a given sub-group, or band, and to this end the use of infanticide and senilicide were routine. Going back to the dawn of human history, which current research suggests could be hundreds of thousands of years ago, we now know that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals inter-bred. We can only speculate on how tribal relations were mediated by: disputes over hunting grounds, the threat of starvation and, given their static, technologically limited, mode of living, diseases, natural disasters and climate change.
To his credit, Harman deals with the issue of gender equality from hunter-gatherers to the present day and we can only hope, that like any fair minded person, he would have resigned from the Party had he lived to witness events reported by The Guardian (9th March 2013): “A woman has claimed she was subjected to a series of offensive questions about her sexual past and drinking habits after bringing an allegation of rape against a senior member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).The UK's most prominent far left organisation is already facing a major showdown over previous handling of separate rape accusations against a senior party figure – identified by the party only as Comrade Delta. This weekend up to 500 members could quit the Marxist group over the alleged whitewash. The SWP's leadership is under fire for setting up a "kangaroo court" to hear allegations of rape and sexual misconduct dating back to 2008 against the man. The allegations made at the party's disputes committee were dismissed by a panel of seven and never passed on to the police. One alleged victim claimed that during the hearing, she was asked if she ‘liked to have a drink’”.
Moving onto the author’s account of the rise and fall of Bolshevism; Harman fails to acknowledge that the Party’s Central Committee was in essence the tool, the will to power, of those members of the radical intelligentsia marginalised in Czarist Russia. Simply put, as Lenin acknowledged on several occasions, the Bolshevik leadership wanted to establish a state-capitalist highly industrialised Russia, appointing managers who would take on roles analogous with those of capitalists in rival western market economies. However, on their own, these Bolshevik intellectuals were obviously unable to achieve this goal and therefore adopted a vulgarized ‘Marxism’ in order to recruit workers and landless peasants as paper sellers and later factory and cannon fodder. The idea that wage labour and money would be abolished was low down, or non-existent, on the agenda of the leadership of the Bolsheviks. Cynically quoting one-off comments by Marx on the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, on assuming power the Bolsheviks leaders gradually made clear that the only dictatorship which would be allowed was theirs; workers councils were either taken over by the Party or abolished. In keeping with Lenin’s obsession with industrialisation and increasing labour productivity, the Party introduced piece work and Taylorist management techniques in the factories of Russia. Using the art of Bolshevik apologetics, Harman repeats the mantra of foreign invasions, civil war and the like to take our attention away from the state capitalist goals of the Bolshevik Central Committee. In terms of achieving their goals, including their monopoly of the political, economic and military decision making process, the Bolsheviks were highly successful.
Whilst coming from a socially inferior background, Stalin understood the historic mission of Bolshevism just as well as the better educated and socially superior Lenin and Trotsky. Yet, whilst blaming “Stalinism” for the “degeneration” of the USSR, Harman fails to acknowledge that Stalin played little or no part in overcoming working class and landless peasant resistance to the Bolshevik dictatorship that developed after the end of the civil war. It was Trotsky who arranged the crushing of resistance in Kronstadt, the savagery of which Harman dismisses with the claim that the Bolsheviks had “little choice but to put down the rising” (447). This claim reveals Harman’s commitment to the Bolshevik agenda and is compounded by the fact that he fails to mention Trotsky’s duplicitous role in butchering the Ukrainian peasant army, after it had fought with the Red Army against the Whites during the civil war, along with other atrocities intended to break the will of those fighting for a socialist and democratic greater Russia. As a supporter of Trotsky, who represented the loyal opposition to what he cynically called a “degenerated worker’s state”, to the bitter end of his book Harman fails to make clear the class basis of Bolshevism. This explains his inability to explain the cynical manoeuvres of the USSR’s domestic and foreign policies from 1917 until its collapse in December 1991 in the later chapters of his book.
To finish this review, we can note Harman’s claim that “for 30 years Stalinist methods produced more rapid rates of economic growth than those experienced anywhere else in the world – except perhaps Japan”, (560). Given his views on “Stalinist” degeneration, this is a bizarre claim providing more support for the view that Trotskyism represents loyal opposition to the USSR. Harman offers only a newspaper report as ‘evidence’ for this and related claims, which do not specify the 30 year period in question. Similar boasting on the output of tractors or grain production, which was mocked by Russian workers, was typical of some sections of the western radical intelligentsia, such as journalists on the Morning Star, who sought to present the USSR as an economic and military success story as a means of promoting state-capitalism in Britain. The reality was that whilst vast resources were devoted to the military, especially the development of rocket technology, as regards agriculture, the output of consumer goods and much else, the USSR was a disaster, falling ever further behind its western rivals. Scoffing at the official statistics, which failed to mention the high rate of industrial injuries, Russian workers reacted against the Taylorist and piece-work regimes imposed by the Bolsheviks with routine go-slows and acts of sabotage.