Michael Harrington, an American Socialist

DSA founder Michael Harrington served as a moral tribune for a broad community by virtue of the democratic and egalitarian content of his socialist message, and by his ceaseless commitment to spreading it.

Harold Meyerson

Harrington was absolutely central in building a post-'60s left. (Barbara Alper/Getty Images)

From the August 1989 issue of In These Times:

Harrington and DSOC, and then DSA, called for open socialist participation in the struggles of the mainstream left—for an American socialism that was both in and of the world.

The night George H. W. Bush was elected president, Michael Harrington, in Los Angeles for a national board meeting of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), attended an expect-the-worst election night party at the home of former Santa Monica Mayor Ruth Goldway and her husband, economist/​planner Derek Shearer. The house was filled with leaders of California left communities, most of them veterans of the 60s, few of them actually DSA members. As Mike entered, Ruth welcomed him with a hug and said, Here’s the man who should be president.” 

It was, I suspect, the nearest thing to a point of political consensus you could find in any cross-section of radicals and liberals like those gathered that evening in Santa Monica. As such, it was a testament to the political leadership that Harrington, who succumbed to cancer on July 31 at the age of 61, had exercised over the preceding three decades. For 20 years, since the death of Norman Thomas, Mike had been America’s pre-eminent socialist. Like Thomas — and Eugene Debs before him — Harrington served as a moral tribune for a broad community by virtue of the democratic and egalitarian content of his socialist message, and by his ceaseless commitment to spreading it.

New thinking

But Harrington assumed the mantle of Debs and Thomas at a time when socialists had lost their sense of direction and agency, both domestically and abroad. To his moral urgency, then, Harrington had to add an analytic depth and breadth, reformulating the project even as he was inspiring people to take it up, redefining it on the run. His tenure coincided, too, with the fragmentation of what had once been a class-based left into any number of distinct causes and constituencies, and he played a seminal role in shaping the post-New Deal coalition politics of American liberalism.

There was another measure of Mike’s leadership: his capacity to change people’s lives. At least once, with the War on Poverty, Mike’s writing had directly influenced government policies. But his speeches made people alter their lives. Mike had learned public speaking from Max Shachtman, an old-guard socialist who had learned his speaking from Leon Trotsky. A Harrington speech was witty, wide-ranging, passionate, allusive; he mixed analytic power and moral urgency at a level unmatched by any other speaker in contemporary America.

Mike’s speeches were Marxist in the sense that he decoded the capitalist logic behind discrete social ills, sketching a vision of radical democracy and suggesting strategies for the transformation of society. The effect on the listener was of a series of recognitions. 

You can waken men only by dreaming their dreams more clearly than they can dream them themselves,” wrote the 19th-century Russian revolutionary Alexander Herzen. To a generation of American leftists — from the students who founded Students for a Democratic Society to the community organizers of the 80s — Mike provided that clarity of vision.

In an age of specialization, when radical analysis is characteristically applied to the margins and interstices of civilization, Harrington addressed the most fundamental social arrangements, the new world order and the news of the day. He would entertain the arguments of capitalism’s defenders, assail them with passion and with fact, bundle up the best of disparate left traditions and apply them in an utterly American idiom. His point was not merely to convey his ideas of socialism, but to convey the intellectual rigor, the excitement, the urgency — at some subliminal level, the poetry — of being a socialist. At bottom, and this is why he spoke so often in so many presumably unpromising venues, he wanted nothing less than your life, your commitment to a venture whose success, he said over and over, was not inevitable, but merely necessary.

Bowery boy

Like Norman Thomas, Harrington came to socialism from the religious left. Born to an upper-middle-class Irish-American family in St. Louis in 1928, Harrington tried both Yale Law and the graduate English department at the University of Chicago in the late 40s before coming to New York to be a poet. Mike’s New York consisted of the Catholic Worker and the tail end of Greenwich Village Bohemia. There, under the tutelage of Dorothy Day, Harrington lived and worked in the squalor and poverty of the Bowery. Unable after a two-year struggle to sustain a religious faith, Harrington left the church and the Worker, retaining the moral urgency that had led him there.

Even before he had left the Bowery, Mike had joined a political sect smaller and more marginal than the Worker. The socialist youth movement of the 50s never had more than a couple hundred members, but it — and, more particularly, Harrington — helped lay the groundwork for the eruptions of the 60s. At last summer’s tribute to Harrington at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, Eleanor Holmes Norton reminisced over the effect his speaking tours had as the 50s began to recede. Journeying from campus to campus, from Swarthmore and Antioch to Reed and Oberlin,” Norton said, Harrington would appear once or twice a year, a pied piper not only of socialist ideas but of literary ideas and of fertile ideas about racism, the labor movement, Democratic and Republican party politics.”

Harrington’s ties to the campus left were damaged, though, at the very moment that that left began to grow in size and militancy. At Students for a Democratic Society’s famous Port Huron conference in 1962, he engaged the movement’s young leadership in a fierce conflict over what he regarded as their insufficiently critical view of Third World left-authoritarian regimes. Harrington was quick to regret not the substance of his position but the vehemence with which he descended upon the SDS leadership; he later came to feel he had thereby contributed to the isolation of the New Left.

The same year as Port Huron, Mike authored the book that was to change his life. The Other America was both the most mainstream of Mike’s 16 books and, ironically, the one that most vindicated classic Marxian epistemology. Forty million Americans were living in poverty when Harrington proclaimed their existence. They lived in plain view of the rest of the nation; it took a socialist to find them. Once he had, the government declared unconditional war on poverty” and proceeded to wage a very conditional one. At the outset of the War on Poverty, in 1964, the administration offered Harrington the opportunity to settle down as an in-house intellectual. He settled down only long enough to help draft some of the initial programs. Norman Thomas had turned 80 that year, and Mike was by then his heir apparent as the leader of American socialism — not a position that went with an assistant secretary’s job.

But the tight little movement that Harrington came to chair of the Socialist Party after Thomas’ death in 1968 refracted within it many of the conflicts and divisions that were rending the Democratic Party in that watershed year. Like Thomas, Harrington had been a longtime critic of American intervention in Vietnam, but by the early 70s he found himself in a minority in an organization that supported the war. Rather than acquiesce in the Socialist Party’s neutrality during the Nixon-McGovern election, Harrington resigned and founded the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC).

With an initial membership of several hundred — back to the dimensions of the 50s left — DSOC was, in Harrington’s words, the defeated remnant of a defeated remnant.” Yet only with the coming of DSOC was Harrington able for the first time to exercise fully his potential for leadership on the American left. There was a cruel irony to the timing of DSOC’s founding, however. Harrington’s entire tenure as chairperson, first of DSOC, then of DSA, coincided with one of the most reactionary epochs in American history. In the great struggles of the 60s — in the civil rights movement (where he was an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr.) and the anti-war movement — he played a supporting role. But in constructing a post-’60s left he was absolutely central.

Come together

Harrington and DSOC, and then DSA, called for open socialist participation in the struggles of the mainstream left — for an American socialism that was both in and of the world. Electorally, this meant participation in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. On this point, if few others, the Harrington strategy and that of his Cold War adversaries in the old Socialist Party coincided. Where Mike parted company with them was on the centrality of a coalition politics. As early as 1967, while writing Toward a Democratic Left, Harrington proclaimed not simply the indispensability of organized workers to progressive change, but also its insufficiency. Changes in class structure and the rise of new social movements, he argued, mandated a coalition of the disparate forces on the democratic left if any progressive agenda was to be enacted.

To gauge how completely Harrington’s arguments have influenced the politics of the broad left, it is useful to look back for a moment to 1973, the year of DSOC’s founding. Each of the tribes of the American left was sulking in its own tent, the remnants of the New Left still scorning the corruptions of bourgeois politics, the New Politics liberals disdainful of labor and, as if to confirm their assessment, George Meany’s AFL-CIO operatives determined to free the Democratic Party from its McGovern-McCarthy-Kennedy peacenik taint. And there was Michael Harrington, talking coalition.

At first, Harrington encountered passive assent: yes, there should be a post-Vietnam coalition, but no one was assembling it. By 1975 Harrington began the task of hammering together a left (but non-socialist) programmatic coalition in national Democratic Party politics. In its early years, the Democratic Agenda (as the project was known in its heyday) brought together the veterans of the 60s left with the institutions of the 30s left (the unions); it commingled for the first time such figures as Gloria Steinem, Ron Dellums and Sam Brown with the UAW’s Doug Eraser and the Machinists’ William Winpisinger. Through Democratic Agenda, through DSOC’s merger with the New American Movement, through argument and symbol, Mike worked to reintegrate what remained of New Left and Old. No one has done more,” former, SDS president Todd Gitlin has written, to heal the left’s generational breach.”

Saving the S-word

Part of Harrington’s battle was to rescue socialism” from one party authoritarian regimes that had appropriated the term. Harrington’s Marxism (and Harrington’s Marx) was profoundly democratic and fundamental to the only politics he saw as capable of resisting the unsocial socialization” that global capitalism was imposing on the planet. His writings on socialism were increasingly intertwined with his work in the Socialist International (SI) (whose newly adopted declaration of principles Mike authored). In a sense, Mike was the ideologue of the Brandt turn” in the SI’s direction: toward a greater emphasis on North-South relations and ecological concerns, and on developing the international institutions to counter the transnational economy.

He addressed himself, too, to the problem of the transition from capitalism to socialism. Socialism could not simply incubate in capitalism as capitalism had in feudalism, Mike argued; socialism advanced only through conscious democratic decision-making. His visionary gradualism” required a mix of radicalism and patience, which may have been one of the few areas in which American socialists could school their European comrades. (“He was an American socialist,” Harrington said last year in his eulogy of Paul DuBrul, which is to say, he knew that there were no easy victories, no final conflicts in his lifetime, that the struggle would go on and on”)

Where Mike found the time for all this — for 16 books, hundreds of articles, thousands of speeches, NPR radio commentary, teaching at the City University of New York and untold hours devoted to the highly unglamorous task of building and maintaining a socialist organization — is anybody’s guess. Moreover, for Harrington, the cultivation of socialists and maintenance of decent human relations required socializing no less than socialism. He had a gift for affability not common among political leaders on the left.

Mike attributed energizing powers to the activist life. On the day his doctors told him he had inoperable cancer of the esophagus and only several months to live, he began work on the book that was to become his final reformulation and call to the socialist project, Socialism: Past & Future. Medical science and sheer will saw him through from its inception to its publication in July. 

Harrington’s last contact with the movement came on the Friday before his death, when DSA Director Pat Lacefield called Harrington’s wife Stephanie to check in on Mike’s condition. Stephanie took the call in the bedroom, where Mike lay with tubes providing oxygen and nourishment running down his throat. Speech was not impossible, but it was difficult. Ask him if he has a message for us,” Pat said. He’s raising a clenched fist.” said Stephanie.

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Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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