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THE Other America (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 Part of Our Time (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 Socialism: Past and Future, 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,
From the archives:
"The Socialist Who Loved Keats," by Nathan Glick (January, 1998)
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.
Illustration by Scott Laumann.
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