The (Still) Relevant Socialist

Michael Harrington, the author of The Other America,was the most charismatic figure on the American left in the past half century. His case for a democratic socialism takes on new meaning in the age of globalization.


Illustration by Scott Laumann

The Other America, was the most charismatic figure on the American left in the past half century. His case for a democratic socialism takes on new meaning in the age of globalization

 

 

 

 

THE OTHER AMERICAN
The Life of Michael Harrington

 

FROM the mid-1950s through the late 1980s one of the high points of life on the American left was a Michael Harrington speech. For thousands of listeners, in fact, a Harrington speech marked the starting point of their own life on the left. Harrington was a more accomplished and prolific writer than either Eugene Debs or Norman Thomas, his two predecessors in the role of America's pre-eminent socialist, but like Debs and Thomas, he won the majority of his converts through the power of the spoken word.
A Harrington speech was both a tour de force and a tour de horizon -- an argument, invariably, for the moral vision and practical advantages of democratic socialism, tailored to the causes and controversies of the moment, buttressed by a scholarly consideration of social trends and statistics, strengthened by Harrington's habit of entertaining opposing arguments before dispatching them. He provided listeners with something that was none too easy to find elsewhere on the left: a sense of historical context, of how their own activism fit into a larger pattern they might otherwise have trouble discerning, of where they stood, broadly speaking, in the flow of history. And he provided them with one thing more: an overwhelming sense of the moral urgency that underlay his critique of capitalism.

I was one of Harrington's converts and comrades, and during the seventies and eighties, when I worked with him, I must have heard about a hundred of his talks. I'm quoted once in Maurice Isserman's fine new biography of Harrington, The Other American, and that is to appraise Harrington as "the last white boy in America who could give a speech." But then, Harrington was schooled in a culture of argumentation that would be hard to replicate today. He learned rigor and logic from the Jesuits, rigor and irony from the Shachtmanites (a Socialist sect that looked to Leon Trotsky as the model rhetorician), and then leavened these influences with his affinity for poetry, his vestigial Irish lilt and midwestern twang, his Greenwich Village cosmopolitanism, his generosity of spirit, his willingness to confess doubt, his unflagging optimism, his enduring boyishness -- ultimately, I suppose, his American-ness. No one else could weave Marx, Lenin, Karl Kautsky, and Willy Brandt into a talk and still sound like the boy -- the brilliant boy -- next door.

And there was the voice itself. Harrington once told me that an opera coach had rushed up to him after one speech to say, "You have such incredible timbre!" His close colleague Irving Howe referred to "Mike's piercing alto," and William F. Buckley Jr., who debated Harrington nearly forty times from the 1950s through the 1980s, to his "evangelist's pitch of voice."

The evangelical metaphor isn't a bad one. Harrington held out the prospect of neither certitude nor salvation in his talks, but there was always an unspoken subtext to his speeches: If this cause is as urgent as I've demonstrated, as plausible as I've shown, and so important that I'm devoting my life to it -- why, then, so should you.

And thousands did.

IF there was a dialectic that shaped Michael Harrington's life (and he was one of few American thinkers with an instinctively dialectical cast of mind), it was that between rectitude and relevance; indeed, his struggle to synthesize the two is the overarching theme of Isserman's book. Writing in 1952 (the year Harrington first joined a socialist organization), Daniel Bell argued that the problem of American socialism was that it was of the world but not in it -- a movement too concerned with its own correctness to be effective. Much of Harrington's career can be seen as a surprisingly successful attempt to prove Bell wrong -- though in a few crucial instances he proved Bell right.

This was, after all, a man who spent his early twenties in the sublime purity and ridiculous isolation of the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day's radical lay order, which succored the poor in New York's Bowery; who moved on to the Shachtmanites at the height of McCarthyism; and who then managed, while traveling around the country on socialism's behalf, to inspire and build up many of the small groups that would coalesce in the sixties left. This was the man who "discovered" poverty in the affluent America of the early sixties, whom the mainstream media acclaimed as a national conscience, and who suffered a nervous breakdown that he would partly attribute to all that establishment approval. Harrington was the elder most trusted by the students who led the New Left; he repudiated them for their ideological deviations and was thus unable to steer them in a less self-destructive direction. In the seventies he was the guy who picked up the pieces from the wreckage of the sixties, the champion of coalition, who connected or reconnected the peace activists, the feminists, and the middle-class reform Democrats with one another and with the more progressive portions of the labor movement. Finally, in the eighties, with social democracy and the welfare state under attack and with laissez-faire on the rise, Harrington fought defensive battles alongside the rest of liberal America, but also assumed a more prophetic role, sketching a socialism for a future that he acknowledged was distant if not eternally hypothetical. In Bell's parlance, Harrington spent his last years (he died of esophageal cancer in 1989, at age sixty-one) both in the world and of it -- but the world, as he himself repeatedly acknowledged, was moving away from him.

The young man we first meet in Isserman's book, however, was both blissfully in the world and out of it. Harrington, who was born and raised in St. Louis, was at once a shy poet and a gregarious, popular kid in high school -- the classroom wit, an editor of the school paper and yearbook. (Asked by a friend at his elite Catholic school why he seldom washed his face, Harrington answered, "Poets don't" -- as good an expression of a fourteen-year-old's impression of the poetic life as one could ever hope to find.) At twenty-two -- having whizzed through Holy Cross, aced his first year at Yale Law, and spent the following year in the graduate English program at the University of Chicago -- he suddenly dropped out. He joined the Catholic Worker and showed up for such deeds of moral witness as the minuscule demonstrations against the Korean War. Nor was his abrupt affiliation the act of a convinced Catholic: only by reading Kierkegaard on the absurdity of belief and the leap of faith did Harrington argue himself back to a fragile theistic position. Plainly, he was drawn less to God than to the life of a saint.

Dorothy Day may be up for canonization today, but before she joined the Church, she led the life of a New York bohemian, cavorting and consorting with half the radicals and artists in Greenwich Village. That was all decades behind her by the time Harrington came to the Worker, but the two kinds of lives that Day had led sequentially, he led simultaneously. Days he spent in the Bowery, engaged not so much in tending to the local derelicts as in writing essays and critiques for the order's paper. Evenings he spent at the White Horse Tavern, where the latter-day counterparts of Day's artists and radicals met to talk, drink, and pair off for the night. He had no trouble reconciling his days and nights, but in time his leap of faith came up short. In 1952 he shifted from a spiritual sect to a secular, socialist one.

From his education in Catholic schools, as Isserman makes clear, Harrington had imbibed the Church's antipathy to capitalism. It would be a mistake, however, to ascribe his socialism to a delayed-action epiphany about, say, Rerum Novarum or any other Catholic anti-capitalist teachings. What Harrington did retain from his years as a believer was -- well, his belief in belief. Although his various faiths always encompassed a strong dose of skepticism, a common theme runs through Harrington's Catholicism, aestheticism, bohemianism, and socialism, which he sounded in his 1983 book on religion, Genuinely committed "believers and unbelievers,"he wrote, "have the same enemy: the humdrum nihilism of everyday life in much of Western society."Henceforth the war on humdrum nihilism would be waged on socialism's behalf.

In place of Dorothy Day, Harrington soon acquired, in Max Shachtman, an equally exotic mentor. Shachtman had been an aide and assistant to Trotsky himself, but in 1940, shortly before Trotsky's murder, he broke with the Old Man on the question of whether Stalinist Russia was socialist at all. Anyone who doesn't believe that impotence tends to corrupt, and that absolute impotence corrupts absolutely, hasn't studied the history of Trotskyism and post-Trotskyism in America. The various groups and subtendencies split again and again, like amoebas. Life within the Shachtmanites was an unending series of sharp attacks not just on the few remaining Stalinists but also on fellow members who were straying from the line. As Isserman demonstrates, Harrington was an accomplished factionalist both inside and outside the organization. (He led the Shachtmanites' youth group, for instance, in factionalizing and ultimately paralyzing the student affiliate of Americans for Democratic Action.)

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, however, the Shachtmanites, who never numbered more than a few hundred, became less and less of a sect -- partly owing, in the latter years, to Harrington's prodding. They ceased pretending that they were in some sense a revolutionary organization and espoused instead a democratic socialism, merging in the late 1950s into Norman Thomas's Socialist Party and eventually reconciling themselves to the fact that in America it made sense for socialists to work within the Democratic Party.

And no Shachtmanite was more in America than Harrington. As the staffer for the youth groups of the Shachtmanites and then the Socialist Party, he toured campuses throughout the middle and late fifties, denouncing U.S. foreign policy, championing civil rights, ridiculing the House Un-American Activities Committee; recruiting an activist here, starting a chapter there; at every stop balancing a talk on politics with another talk on culture; finding a girl on every campus; riding the bus and bumming rides all across the nation -- leading, in short, an impossibly romantic life. Marginality had nothing to offer that compared to this: the socialist met America, and it was good.

And increasingly the students responded. Harrington's audiences grew larger with each passing year. Leading sixties movement figures like Stokely Carmichael and Jerry Rubin were drawn to the Socialists, and Tom Hayden called Harrington "easily the most charismatic of the political intellectuals" he'd met during those years. The Pied Piper for the young people who were to lead the New Left, Harrington began to foresee its configurations. The new progressives, he wrote, would be a coalition of labor, the dispossessed, students, and beats, bonded by a moral solidarity of the kind he evoked (this he did not write) in his talks. This was far from the narrowly Marxist language of Shachtman, closer to the moral-tribune tradition of Debs and Thomas -- though Harrington's talks had just enough Village hipness to make socialism cool as well as urgent.

From the late fifties on, an increasing number of Harrington's speeches dealt with the widespread poverty that persisted in a nation busy congratulating itself for creating the world's first majority middle class. Harrington wrote two major pieces on the subject in Commentary -- scrutinizing the numbers, uncovering as many as 50 million Americans who lived in poverty, and describing the ways in which poverty creates its own culture of disorganization and dysfunction. He received several offers from publishing houses to expand his articles into a book, but Shachtman -- the ultimate organization man -- told him that it was more important to tend to party business. Fortunately, Macmillan made Harrington an offer so generous that he at last couldn't refuse it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

T (1962) wasn't recognized as an instant classic, though it received very favorable reviews. Not until Dwight Macdonald wrote a fifty-page essay in The New Yorker extolling both the book and its author did it become a phenomenon. Harrington was spending a year in Europe when the review appeared; he returned to the United States to find the paperback a best seller, a must-read on campuses -- and in the White House. Lyndon Johnson had become President just a few weeks before Harrington's return; told that John F. Kennedy had planned to launch a war on poverty, Johnson ordered a full-tilt assault. Harrington was summoned to Washington to work on the new program, which did not begin to approximate what he thought was necessary.

Publication of The Other America transformed Harrington's life. Network television sought him out as a commentator on social policy, and speaking invitations poured in from all across the nation. All the while his role in the American left -- and in American liberalism -- had become even more pivotal. In 1964 James Wechsler, the editor of the New York Post, wrote that Harrington was the man who would bring unity to the "scattered legions among the liberal intellectual community, the civil rights activists and the more enlightened sectors of organized labor." Wechsler didn't include antiwar activists on his list, because Vietnam didn't heat up until the following year, but here, too, Harrington was recognized as central to bringing, if not unity, at least comity between the old anti-Communist left he came from and the new antiwar student left he'd helped spawn. "Harrington was pivotal," Todd Gitlin wrote years later, in his history of the sixties, "for he was the one person who might have mediated across the generational divide."

But he didn't.

IN the histories of the twentieth-century American left much has been made of the blow-up between Old Left and New, between Harrington and Tom Hayden, at the 1962 Port Huron conference of Students for a Democratic Society -- the student affiliate of the League for Industrial Democracy, on whose board Harrington sat and of which he would become chairman two years later. Harrington was one of four LID elders -- all Shachtmanites -- who came to Port Huron as ideological chaperones, and he arrived armed with criticisms of the first draft of the conference statement, which Hayden had written. The draft, Harrington said, was insufficiently critical of communism and insufficiently appreciative of labor and liberal groups. But it wasn't so much what Harrington said as the way he said it that stunned his young acolytes; he ripped into Hayden the way Shachtmanites had always ripped into their rival factions, or into the dread Stalinist opposition. There was no Stalinist opposition at Port Huron, but the sense of embattlement that animated the true Shachtmanite had mysteriously resurfaced in Harrington. As Isserman puts it, "He had once again strapped on the armor of the doomed legion of the Left."

In fact, as Harrington later acknowledged, the SDSers took most of his criticisms to heart after he left and revised their draft. That is not how events were reported to him, however, by Tom Kahn and Rochelle Horowitz, two steely Shachtmanites who stayed behind. Without so much as reading the revision, the LID board ordered the locks changed on the offices of the errant student activists.

Isserman makes clear, however, that the Port Huron brouhaha didn't really occasion the rift between the Old Left and the New. Harrington soon read the draft, apologized for overreacting, and started touring campuses to bigger audiences than ever. Two years later The Other America was all but required reading for the student activists who traveled to Mississippi to take part in Freedom Summer.

In mid-1965 Harrington was writing columns not only against the Vietnam War (he had long opposed the U.S. government's decision to intervene in Vietnam) but also in favor of student demonstrators. As Isserman shows, however, Harrington subordinated his opposition to the war to the increasingly faux opposition of his fellow Shachtmanites, who were forever proclaiming the emergence of a "third force" in South Vietnam -- independent unions and the like, when in fact there were none. He steered clear of most of the antiwar activity of the time. In 1968 Harrington did campaign for Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, and helped to found the New Democratic Coalition to promote the influence of the antiwar forces in Democratic Party affairs. Such positions were anathema to the Shachtmanites, who by then had reduced socialism to a doctrinal expression of George Meany's biases. Not until 1972, however, confronted with a Shachtman-dominated executive committee that shared Meany's loathing of George McGovern -- did Harrington quit the Socialist Party. In the end, leaving proved less an act of apostasy than staying.

WHEN he founded the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, commonly known as DSOC, in 1973, Harrington finally had an organization that genuinely sought to build a progressive coalition -- and not a moment too soon. The American liberal community was all but shattered by the time the Vietnam War ended: labor was disdainful of middle-class liberals, middle-class liberals were scornful of labor ("They're not worth the powder it would take to blow them up," one McGovern aide famously pronounced), and the no-longer-quite-so-youthful protesters of the sixties were dismissive of both.

For the next decade Harrington preached the gospel of interdependency, telling McGovern liberals, labor-union members, minority activists, environmentalists, feminists, and simmered-down sixties kids that none of them could prevail by themselves. He put forth a program that could bring them together: planned full employment, creating a climate of economic security, in which environmental safeguards and policies of racial and cultural liberalism would be less threatening to white workers and thus more likely to be enacted. With the backing of the United Auto Workers and other progressive unions, he assembled Democratic Agenda, a coalition that advanced these perspectives in the Democratic Party platform wars of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Harrington's speaking schedule grew even more crowded during these years, and once at the podium, he never confined himself merely to outlining a new course for the Democrats. A typical Harrington speech of that time might contain refutations of the latest claims of Charles Murray, an exhortation to reject the centrist inertia of the Carter Administration, a progressive program for full employment, and a sketch of the growing corporate control of the planet and how socialism was the only democratic alternative to that control. It was always necessary to define what democratic socialism was not -- not Communist tyranny, not post-office inefficiency, not nationalization of enterprises, not even unswerving antagonism to markets. Harrington's socialism was about the participatory control of workplaces, the democratic control of technologies and investment. It was about the necessity of the social -- a cri de coeur against a growing individualism that denied the very interdependency of humankind. "Anti-social socialization,"as he put it, was very much the order of the day.

Harrington neither entertained nor imparted any illusions that history was running his way. Indeed, the weight of history, of socialist failure, hung heavier on him than it had on Debs and Thomas, and he felt compelled to offer both a vision and a plan even as he was updating and revising them, so to speak, on the run. The same Pascalian cast, the same leap of faith, that had propelled his commitment to the Catholic Worker now sustained his faith -- not in socialism's necessity or its moral worth but in the prospect of its realization.

Throughout the eighties Harrington insisted on incorporating a transnational dimension into his speeches -- though not even this spellbinding speaker could hold an audience's attention as he plumbed the Law of the Sea. Virtually no one listened to his talks to learn about the solidaristic wage policies of Sweden, Isserman writes.

They listened to him because he had come to serve as the voice of collective conscience for those who were disturbed by the values of Reagan's America. He told the nation uncomfortable truths in a way that made people want to do something about them.

Like Debs and Thomas before him, Harrington finished his career above all in the role of moral tribune. As to the relevance of his socialism to both the present and the future, Isserman remains discreetly, strategically, mum.

BUT this is not a book that concludes with the end of Isserman's text. It is, in fact, the only book I can recall whose back-cover blurb provides the clearest view of the end of the story -- of Harrington's legacy. The blurb praises the book but mainly praises Harrington -- "a man whose entire life was devoted to the cause of social justice, from his early days at the Catholic Worker to his support for workers' struggles in the 1980s." The quotation is from the AFL-CIO president, John Sweeney.

There are any number of ways to look at Sweeney's successful 1995 campaign to unseat Lane Kirkland, but one absolutely valid interpretation is that it marked the victory of the Harrington wing of American labor over the Shachtmanite wing -- and not just because Sweeney was a member of DSA while Kirkland was the chief sponsor of Social Democrats USA, as the Shachtmanites had come to be known. Consider the bill of indictment that Sweeney's supporters brought against Kirkland: He remained preoccupied with the concerns of the Cold War years after the Cold War had ended. He opposed, straight through the debacle of the 1994 election, labor's entering into coalitions with community, civil-rights, and other groups it could not control.

More important, consider what American labor has become under Sweeney's leadership. It has redefined itself as a social movement, the linchpin of a larger coalition, devoted to organizing the working poor. It has reached out to campuses as never before, recruiting all manner of unkempt kids as organizers, backing the college anti-sweatshop movement. It has forged nearly unimaginable coalitions -- the teamsters and the turtles together at last -- in opposition to global finance and corporations. And it has staked out a position on this new world order that makes it, more than any other union movement or political party on the planet, the pre-eminent champion of global social democracy.

It is, in short, the institutional embodiment of the things for which Michael Harrington stood and spoke and lived. In good measure that's because the people who heard Harrington's speeches -- and changed their lives -- are now the political directors and policy wonks and organizing capos and presidents of any number of American unions, at the local, regional, and national levels. Maybe they heard him explain to auto workers -- first skeptical, then cheering -- at their 1983 national convention, held in the middle of a wave of plant closings, that their enemies weren't Mexican workers but the corporations that played them off against each other. Perhaps Harrington argued with today's leaders at the end of the sixties that unions were still the indispensable force for change, and that there were a number -- a small number -- of unions that would welcome their involvement. Most likely they heard him sketch his vision of a world no longer dominated by the calculus of the market, which had crossed over from necessity to freedom, and they wanted nothing more than to join him in hastening that day.

At the conclusion of (1955), Murray Kempton's lyrical history of the thirties, Kempton tried to assess the legacy of that generation's great socialist -- and it is, he argued, the ongoing work of the people he calls "Norman Thomas's children." "The labor movement is full of them," Kempton wrote, "not merely the Reuther boys but a host of [officials]." More of Thomas's onetime acolytes, Kempton continued, "remain from the youth movement of the thirties, functioning in a fashion doing least violence to their image of themselves in those days, than survive from any other political group." The same, I'd argue, can be said of the children of Michael Harrington, who have transformed the labor movement over the past few years into the nation's most dynamic and important force for progressive change.

THERE'S one other part of Harrington's legacy, the significance of which is only now becoming clear. It's what Harrington said in those slower stretches of his talks, and what he wrote in the largely unread portions of his books during the last decade of his life. It's his guide for the forces that have only now begun the work of creating a social and political global order to balance the purely economic -- that is, capitalist -- one that has arisen in the past quarter century. "The third creation of the world," Harrington called the ascendance of this corporate order in his final book: a new construction of the global order, much like that undertaken by the British in the nineteenth century and by the Americans in the middle of the twentieth. A specific historical achievement, no more immutable than the national laissez-faire regimes of a hundred years ago.

I was reminded of Harrington's late writings recently, while reading a proposal by Jane D'Arista, a brilliant economist with the Financial Markets Center. D'Arista has proposed a global equivalent of the Federal Reserve -- controlled by a board drawn equally from the world's wealthiest and most populous nations -- as a safeguard against destabilizing capital flows, and more generally against the ability of financial markets to unravel a nation's economy. The United States would have its say, but so would India and Brazil.

This rang a faint bell, and sure enough, in Harrington's the book he wrote in 1988 as he was dying, Harrington proposed an Economic Security Council with some of the same powers and governed by essentially the same structure. He was considering the practicalities of the first steps toward a democratic global order. And he was considering how to link such practicalities to a new, globalized version of the kind of passion and faith that had sustained socialists throughout their work to create democracies, both political and social, on the national level. He wrote,

 

The politics of international economic and social solidarity must be presented as a practical solution to immediate problems as well as a recognition of that oneness of humankind celebrated in the Biblical account of the common parents of all human beings.

The task of the socialist, Irving Howe said, is simultaneously to see and work on both the near and the far. That's something the movement that burst forth at the World Trade Organization protest in Seattle last fall has yet to learn from the thought and example of Michael Harrington, who is in and of the world even now.

 

Presented by

Harold Meyerson is the executive editor of L.A. Weekly and a member of the editorial board of Dissent magazine.

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