Remembering Michael Harrington, A Heroic Democratic Socialist Leader

The vision of the socialist organizer, who died on this day in 1989, remains inspiring.

Maurice Isserman July 31, 2015

(Syd Harris)

In a life­time of polit­i­cal engage­ment, Michael Har­ring­ton must have giv­en ten thou­sand speech­es, and of those, prob­a­bly a thou­sand in New York City, where he had made his home since his arrival in 1949, age 21. He gave his final speech in the city 40 years lat­er, in May 1989. Suf­fer­ing from the can­cer of the esoph­a­gus that would end his life in less than three months, he spoke that day to reporters and edi­tors from the city’s union press. 

As a public intellectual and a moral tribune, in the 1970s and 1980s, Harrington had few equals on the left, or indeed across the political spectrum. Harrington, Senator Ted Kennedy would write, “has made more Americans more uncomfortable for more good reasons than any other person I know.”

Dinah Lev­en­thal, a 22-year-old activist, was in atten­dance. She was about to take on the job of youth orga­niz­er for Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), the social­ist group that Har­ring­ton helped found and led, and wel­comed the chance to speak with him for a few min­utes after­ward. Mike rem­i­nisced about his own days as a young social­ist orga­niz­er in the 1950s. He said,” she recalled, that he had felt an incred­i­ble degree of free­dom and learned so much in those years”

He said I should make the most of it, being an orga­niz­er and trav­el­ing around, get­ting to see the coun­try and get­ting to know what the coun­try was all about. He real­ly loved this coun­try, and thought that you had to love the coun­try to be a rad­i­cal, to be a social­ist, and to want to change it.

Over the years, Mike met and worked with many impor­tant and famous peo­ple, includ­ing Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Unit­ed Auto Work­er pres­i­dent Wal­ter Reuther, Ms. Mag­a­zine founder Glo­ria Steinem, U.S. sen­a­tor and pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Robert Kennedy, and Prime Min­is­ter Olof Palme, leader of Sweden’s rul­ing Social­ist Par­ty, to name but a few. The pub­li­ca­tion in 1962 of his land­mark study of pover­ty, The Oth­er Amer­i­ca, helped spark the John­son administration’s War on Pover­ty. He had anoth­er best-sell­er in 1972 with the unlike­ly title of Social­ism, which sold over 100,000 copies in paper­back and influ­enced many read­ers with its argu­ment that the real Karl Marx” was a rad­i­cal demo­c­rat, not a would-be dic­ta­tor. His last book, Social­ism: Past and Future, came out short­ly before his death. He was an edi­tor of Dis­sent, a com­men­ta­tor on Nation­al Pub­lic Radio, a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to lead­ing opin­ion mag­a­zines like the Nation and the New Repub­lic. As a pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al and a moral tri­bune, in the 1970s and 1980s, he had few equals on the left, or indeed across the polit­i­cal spec­trum. Har­ring­ton, Sen­a­tor Ted Kennedy would write, has made more Amer­i­cans more uncom­fort­able for more good rea­sons than any oth­er per­son I know.”

Per­haps Mike’s great­est polit­i­cal impact was on sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions of young rad­i­cals com­ing of age between the 1950s and the 1980s. He spoke before all kinds of audi­ences, in church­es and union halls, and won applause from lis­ten­ers who had prob­a­bly nev­er heard a social­ist before. But he was most in his ele­ment when speak­ing on col­lege and uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus­es. He liked young peo­ple; he knew how they thought; he could reach and inspire them. He was, he liked to joke as the decades turned and his hair grew gray­er and then white, the nation’s old­est young social­ist” and a clos­et youth.”

Born in 1928 in St. Louis, the only child of mid­dle-class par­ents of stur­dy Irish Catholic back­ground and staunch Demo­c­ra­t­ic sym­pa­thies, edu­cat­ed at Holy Cross (which he entered at age 16, and grad­u­at­ed from at age 19), Yale Law School (acing his first year, and then drop­ping out when he decid­ed the law wasn’t for him), and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go (earn­ing a master’s degree in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture in 1949), he then moved to New York City to become a writer. Some­where along the line he had devel­oped vague­ly left­ish sym­pa­thies, but with­out join­ing any rad­i­cal groups.

But in 1951 he was drawn to Dorothy Day’s anar­chist-paci­fist Catholic Work­er move­ment, and moved into the group’s House of Hos­pi­tal­i­ty” on Chrystie Street on Manhattan’s Low­er East Side. There, with oth­er vol­un­teers, he worked in the soup kitchen (which catered to the home­less alco­holics who crowd­ed the near­by Bow­ery Dis­trict), wrote for and helped edit the Catholic Work­er news­pa­per, and joined sparse­ly attend­ed pick­et lines protest­ing the Kore­an War, his unmis­tak­ably Irish face and name con­found­ing the NYC police department’s Red Squad, which mon­i­tored such events.

Mike remained indeli­bly Irish, but was about to shed his Catholi­cism (his reli­gious faith waver­ing even before he joined the Catholic Work­er). In 1952, he depart­ed Chrystie Street, moved to Green­wich Vil­lage, and joined the Young People’s Social­ist League (YPSL), youth affil­i­ate of the bat­tered rem­nant of the once-vibrant Social­ist Par­ty, found­ed by Eugene Debs at the turn of the cen­tu­ry, and led for the past sev­er­al decades by Nor­man Thomas. He was in select com­pa­ny: YPSL count­ed 134 mem­bers nation­wide in 1952.

And it was about to get small­er, because Mike joined a group that split away to form a new and even fringi­er youth group, the Young Social­ist League (YSL), whose adult men­tor was a for­mer Trot­sky­ist with a long his­to­ry of rad­i­cal fac­tion­al­ism named Max Shacht­man, leader of the Inde­pen­dent Social­ist League, for­mer­ly the Work­ers Par­ty, for­mer­ly a split-off from the Social­ist Work­ers Par­ty, and so on. The Shacht­man­ites,” as they were called, were fero­cious­ly anti-Stal­in­ist (not entire­ly a bad thing), but also fero­cious­ly sec­tar­i­an (an entire­ly bad thing). Despite occu­py­ing the left­er-than-thou mar­gins of an already mar­gin­al social­ist move­ment, Shacht­man attract­ed some tal­ent­ed lieu­tenants (Irv­ing Howe had been one until he left the ISL to found Dis­sent in the ear­ly 1950s); Mike was the lat­est, and per­haps most tal­ent­ed, catch.

In time, the Shacht­man­ites returned to the Social­ist Par­ty (and, in Mike’s case, the Young People’s Social­ist League). As YPSL nation­al orga­niz­er in the late 1950s he hitch-hiked back and forth across the coun­try, vis­it­ing cam­pus­es from Bran­deis to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley, build­ing YPSL chap­ters, and, more impor­tant, detect­ing the stir­rings of a move­ment he start­ed to refer to as a New Left.” Tom Hay­den and oth­er young activists who were in the process of cre­at­ing their own cam­pus group (small­er than YPSL at its incep­tion) called Stu­dents for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Soci­ety (SDS) were among those Har­ring­ton influ­enced. Mike famous­ly wound up quar­rel­ing with Hay­den and oth­er SDSers at their found­ing con­ven­tion in Port Huron, Michi­gan, in 1962 (not hav­ing put aside all the sec­tar­i­an instincts of the ear­ly 1950s) – a rift he deeply regretted.

In the next year, after a review of his study of pover­ty, The Oth­er Amer­i­ca, cat­a­pult­ed the sub­ject into pol­i­cy-mak­ing cir­cles, Mike became famous (and incred­i­bly busy) as the man who dis­cov­ered pover­ty.” He was less involved with the stu­dent move­ment (although still a fre­quent speak­er on col­lege and uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus­es). In the lat­er 1960s, as the war in Viet­nam esca­lat­ed and rad­i­cal­ized a gen­er­a­tion, and as the orga­nized New Left, par­tic­u­lar­ly SDS, embraced con­fronta­tion­al tac­tics and rev­o­lu­tion­ary rhetoric, Mike found it increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to con­nect with the young cam­pus activists. But he tried. At a con­fer­ence of social­ist lead­ers in 1967, Mike cau­tioned against stri­dent denun­ci­a­tions of the New Left: They will make mis­takes, but they are the peo­ple – when things get bet­ter – that I’ll have to work with.”

In 1973, with the old SP in ruins, Mike and oth­ers cre­at­ed a new group, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ist Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee (DSOC), which soon devel­oped a vibrant Youth Sec­tion. In 1982, DSOC merged with the New Amer­i­can Move­ment (NAM), which had been found­ed some years ear­li­er by for­mer New Left­ists. The merged orga­ni­za­tion becom­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), with its own Youth Sec­tion, even­tu­al­ly renamed the Young Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists (YDS).

Mike reli­gious­ly attend­ed the win­ter and sum­mer con­fer­ences spon­sored by DSA’s Youth Sec­tion. The last time he did so was in Feb­ru­ary 1989. In a speech to the stu­dents in atten­dance he acknowl­edged that some of them would pay their DSA dues for a year or so (“God bless you”) then move on to oth­er things, and prob­a­bly remain, at least, a good lib­er­al.” But to those who would wind up stay­ing in the move­ment for the long term, he had spe­cial words of encour­age­ment, draw­ing on near­ly four decades of experience:

This move­ment should enrich you. This move­ment should allow you to lead a dif­fer­ent kind of life. This is not a bur­den. At its best this is a move­ment of joy.

Like his pre­de­ces­sors Eugene Debs and Nor­man Thomas, Mike Har­ring­ton believed that to wak­en the con­science and change the con­scious­ness of a nation, one had to be pre­pared to build an orga­ni­za­tion, start a pub­li­ca­tion, speak in a thou­sand halls to crowds of hun­dreds, or scores, or tens, if nec­es­sary, recruit­ing com­rades from those con­vert­ed by the sound of one’s voice and the strength of one’s argu­ments. It was, and remains, a hero­ic vision.

This post has been adapt­ed from Mau­rice Isser­man’s biog­ra­phy of Michael Har­ring­ton The Oth­er Amer­i­can: The Life of Michael Har­ring­ton.

Mau­rice Isser­man, a char­ter mem­ber of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca, is the author of The Oth­er Amer­i­can: The Life of Michael Har­ring­ton (2000)
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