Michael Harrington

Michael Harrington, dust jacket photo from Twilight of Capitalism (1977)
Michael Harrington, dust jacket photo from Twilight of Capitalism (1977)
by Tom Gallagher
Saturday, May 15, 2021

A talk given to the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America.

During the dark ages of American socialism, well before the first Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, a friend of mine used to say that he thought our role as American socialists was similar to that of the medieval Irish monks who would spend their days transcribing ancient manuscripts that would be largely ignored in their day but available to hoped-for future readers. His notion was that even if what we socialists were saying wasn’t exactly catching fire now, we were at the least preserving the idea for a hoped-for more enlightened future. And so, if you will accept the metaphor for the moment, if we were to ask who might be considered the abbot of those imagined modern-day socialist preservationist monks, a logical choice might be Michael Harrington.

And indeed, probably not coincidentally, one of Harrington’s earliest political affiliations – in 1951, when he was 23 – was with the Catholic Worker, an organization that has run hospitality houses serving meals to the down and out since 1933. The organization, by the way, continues in 187 locations today, including two each in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland.

But as for Harrington, he soon shifted his efforts permanently to organizations that viewed themselves as part of an American socialist tradition dating back to Eugene Debs. The young Harrington, like many a young socialist before and after him, cobbled together a living. He was one of the original writers for the Village Voice, and as an outgrowth of an article he wrote for the magazine Commentary, in 1962 he published The Other America, a book dispelling the illusion that the title of another prominent book of the day, The Affluent Society, actually described the entire nation. If there was one single book that became associated with the War on Poverty programs passed during the Lyndon Johnson administration,The Other America was the one, and Harrington eventually parlayed the notoriety that came with the book into becoming virtually the only socialist of that Cold War era with access to national media – as a socialist.

In 1968, he became something of a figurehead president of the Socialist Party which he then quit in 1972. By that point, the Socialist Party was no longer running its own presidential candidates, and the rift came about because the bulk of the leadership of the party did not support the anti-Vietnam War presidential candidacy of George McGovern against Richard Nixon. (Something that was also true of the leadership of the AFL-CIO.)

But by now, what was loosely described as a New Left had sprung up in America. Based primarily in the civil rights and antiwar movements, and centered in the Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, this New Left found little to love in either of the two main claimants to the American socialist tradition – the Communist Party that had steadfastly defended the Soviet Union right through the Stalin years, or the Socialist Party, whose anti-Communism now extended to supporting the Vietnam War. (They had supported the Korean War, too, but no one much paid attention to that one – then or now.)

Harrington was about half a generation older than the leadership of the New Left and got off on the wrong foot in his relations with them by pressing them to more forthrightly declare their lack of sympathy with the Soviet Union. He would later come to regard his inability to establish better relations with the New Left as the greatest failure of his political life. As a result, the new Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) that emerged from the Socialist Party split in 1973 was never, properly speaking, a New Left organization.

What was distinctive about the new socialist organization was that it was not a political party. The highpoint of American socialist presidential candidacies had occurred back in 1912, which also was – and remains – the only presidential election since 1852 when the top two spots were not taken by a Democrat and a Republican. So the thinking was that it was probably time to try a different tack and take the fight inside – an approach that would not actually be fully vindicated for another forty years – in the 2016 campaign.

DSOC and DSA were never very large in Harrington’s day – maybe 10,000 at the most. But members included two Congressional Representatives, Ron Dellums of Berkeley and Major Owens of Brooklyn. These two self-identified socialists actually matched the highest number the Socialist Party ever had in the House – and was not exceeded until this current congressional term. The organization’s members also at one point or another included the mayor of New York City, the borough president of Manhattan, a smattering of state legislators, and a variety of local officials. (All of these numbers have also been exceeded by the current organization).

Harrington chaired DSOC – and later DSA, after its formation in 1982 – until his death in 1989. Along the way, he more or less inherited the mantle of Mr. Socialist from Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party leader and six-time presidential candidate who had followed Debs. In a memoir, Harrington once mused of perhaps being remembered in the future as a “lesser Norman Thomas.”

While it was his authorship of The Other America that first brought him the invites for such as writing columns for the New York Times or commenting on National Public Radio, it was what he had to say that got him invited back. Some may have thought the democratic portion of DSOC and DSA’s name was redundant in a socialist organization because, after all, socialism was already supposed to be a higher form of democracy that extended the public’s control past the government and into the economy. But the organizations’ founders considered it a necessity to reassert socialism’s commitment to democratic principles, due to the obviously undemocratic nature of various governments that claimed that what they were building was socialism.

Harrington wrote 16 books, and in his speaking and writing continually reflected that democratic commitment – both substantively and rhetorically. With the civil rights movement’s struggle for voting rights of paramount importance to so many – as it is again today – Harrington, for instance, would never make dismissive references to mere “bourgeois democracy,” as some others on the left might. He called socialism “the left-wing of the possible.” While operating and thinking very much in the tradition of the Marxist analysis of capitalism, he also thought that with his talk of the eventual “withering away of the state,” Marx himself arguably qualified as the last of the utopians.

Harrington believed that just as capitalism had been built within the world of feudalism, we had to build socialism within the capitalist world we have inherited. His was an ongoing effort to convince Americans that the socialist ideal was not some exotic, dangerous fantasy that would be foisted upon them. He always avoided archaic phraseology such as “smashing the bourgeois state” or establishing the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Instead, he relentlessly made the case that ultimately only a socialist approach could deal with the ever-increasing complexity of the modern world – in a democratic fashion.

Harrington thought that (and I’m quoting here) “the vocation of a radical … is to walk a perilous tightrope … to be true to the socialist vision of a new society … constantly develop and extend its content … and … bring” it “into contact with actual movements fighting not to transform the system, but to gain some little increment of dignity or even just a piece of bread.”

Whether he is ultimately remembered as a “lesser Norman Thomas,” or something else, what we do know is that when Bernie Sanders put democratic socialism into play in the national discussion, there was an organization already in place that made sense to many of the newly motivated and newly converted socialists. And that fact is in no small part due to the lifelong efforts of Michael Harrington.

Tom Gallagher is a former Massachusetts State Representative and the author of ‘The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex.‘ He lives in San Francisco. He can be reached at TGTGTGTGTG@aol.com.

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