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 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.

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

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