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Books The (Still) Relevant Socialist

Illustration by Scott Laumann

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

by Harold Meyerson

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)


THE OTHER AMERICAN
The Life of Michael Harrington

by Maurice Isserman.
PublicAffairs,
449 pages, $28.50.


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.

Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

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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, The Politics at God's Funeral. 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.

Continued...

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)


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

Illustration by Scott Laumann.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 2000; The (Still) Relevant Socialist - 00.08; Volume 286, No. 2; page 92-97.