On Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialism

Maurice Isserman’s biography of Harrington depicts a fierce lifelong advocate for democratic socialism who butted heads with the New Left but never wavered in his commitment to economic justice.

Kim Phillips-Fein July 31, 2018

Harrington's pragmatism led him to write The Other America without mentioning the word "socialist" once. (Facebook)

From the July 2000 issue of In These Times:

Harrington's relentless focus on economic issues, his moral seriousness, his "visionary gradualism," his "pragmatic radicalism," represent, to Isserman, the road not taken for the American left.

When Michael Har­ring­ton worked in the Catholic Work­er move­ment as a 23- year-old in the ear­ly 50s, young staffers used to joke that they were in pur­suit of saint­hood. Har­ring­ton came close; near the end of his life, he became a kind of sec­u­lar Saint Fran­cis of Assisi,” in the words of his biog­ra­ph­er, Mau­rice Isser­man. But Har­ring­ton nev­er grew accus­tomed to saint­hood, even the sec­u­lar variety.

His posi­tion as a lone voice of con­science speak­ing out against Rea­gan­ism remind­ed him of how irri­tat­ed his men­tor, Nor­man Thomas, had been in the posi­tion of a social­ist who threat­ened no one and noth­ing … who could be revered on cer­e­mo­ni­al occa­sions and cit­ed to prove the coun­try was gen­uine­ly tol­er­ant and demo­c­ra­t­ic.” Assess­ing his own life, Har­ring­ton wor­ried that he would be remem­bered only as a less­er Nor­man Thomas.” It was a pre­scient, if damn­ing, bit of self-analy­sis. At the end of his new biog­ra­phy of Har­ring­ton, The Oth­er Amer­i­can, Isser­man con­cludes that this char­ac­ter­i­za­tion was, unfor­tu­nate­ly, just about right.

Michael Har­ring­ton — author of The Oth­er Amer­i­ca and founder of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca — makes a per­plex­ing bio­graph­i­cal sub­ject. He may have been the heir to Eugene Debs and Nor­man Thomas as Amer­i­ca’s fore­most social­ist,” but only long after the Social­ist Par­ty had ceased to have any influ­ence on nation­al affairs. He opposed Com­mu­nism in the 50s, and in the 60s he did not sup­port the anti-war move­ment. He nev­er held a posi­tion of influ­ence in any large insti­tu­tion. The Oth­er Amer­i­ca is a mov­ing book, but Har­ring­ton’s rep­u­ta­tion as the man who dis­cov­ered pover­ty” is wild­ly over­rat­ed, and his actu­al influ­ence on the War on Pover­ty leg­is­la­tion was neg­li­gi­ble. Even Isser­man’s open­ing quote — from the E.M. Forster nov­el Howard’s End — sug­gests the dif­fi­cul­ty of writ­ing about some­one like Har­ring­ton: With infi­nite effort we nerve our­selves for a cri­sis that nev­er comes.”

Yet The Oth­er Amer­i­can is more than a well-writ­ten biog­ra­phy or an ele­gant, bal­anced study of the hid­den recess­es of the post­war Amer­i­can left, though it is both these things. It is, in fact, as much a plea for a cer­tain kind of left pol­i­tics as it is a his­to­ry book. What Har­ring­ton rep­re­sents to Isser­man is the oth­er” Amer­i­can left: anti-Com­mu­nist, friend­ly to lib­er­als, sym­pa­thet­ic to reli­gion, will­ing to work with­in the sys­tem, nose turned up at the extrem­ism of SDS. Isser­man is not roman­tic about Har­ring­ton. The biog­ra­phy is remark­ably even-hand­ed, and offers a good account of Har­ring­ton’s fail­ures as well as his suc­cess­es. But Har­ring­ton’s life is of inter­est to Isser­man pri­mar­i­ly because it seems to rep­re­sent a (most­ly) usable past for what remains of the left today.

Michael Har­ring­ton was born in St. Louis in 1928, the only child of an Irish Catholic lawyer. An aca­d­e­m­ic gold­en boy, Har­ring­ton was nonethe­less rest­less and uncer­tain about what to do with his life. He entered law school at Yale but dropped out after one year. He flirt­ed with a doc­tor­ate in Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, but quit to move to Green­wich Vil­lage and drink at the White Horse Tav­ern. His career only began to take shape when he joined the Catholic Work­er, where he pro­duced book reviews and edi­to­ri­als at a rate that astound­ed even Dorothy Day.

Even before he joined the Catholic Work­er, the Church had instilled in Har­ring­ton a pas­sion­ate­ly moral approach to the world. From the time I was a lit­tle kid the Church said your life is not some­thing you are sup­posed to frit­ter away; your life is in trust to some­thing more impor­tant than your­self,” he would say in lat­er life. His writ­ing for the Catholic Work­er reflect­ed this moral, not Marx­ist, approach to social prob­lems: To view … pover­ty as a force in a his­toric [dialec­tic], is not only the dehu­man­iza­tion of the poor, it is the dehu­man­iza­tion of him who thinks it. The reac­tion to this pover­ty should be part­ly one of cal­cu­la­tion, of how can it be erad­i­cat­ed, but it must also be of the Beat­i­tudes, of hunger and thirst for Jus­tice, of love and grief for what goes on before our eyes.”

Despite its influ­ence on his world­view, Har­ring­ton’s spir­i­tu­al faith wavered through­out his time at the Catholic Work­er. When he left, Day asked him, anx­ious­ly, Is it a woman?” (She had good rea­son to be con­cerned — Har­ring­ton’s youth­ful wom­an­iz­ing is a dark thread run­ning through the first half of the book.) No, Har­ring­ton respond­ed, it’s the­ol­o­gy.” But after leav­ing the Catholic Work­er, he joined an orga­ni­za­tion more doc­tri­naire than the Church: the Young Peo­ple’s Social­ist League. Orig­i­nal­ly part of the Social­ist Par­ty, Trot­sky­ists took YPSL over in the late 30s. After sev­er­al more inter­nal splits, its last frag­ments went under the con­trol of sec­tar­i­an racon­teur Max Shacht­man, who would be one of Har­ring­ton’s men­tors for the rest of his life.

In many respects, Isser­man writes, the Shacht­man­ites were iden­ti­cal to the myr­i­ad of tiny rad­i­cal sects that pre­ced­ed or fol­lowed them into obliv­ion.” But unlike the Trot­sky­ists, they did not see the Sovi­et Union as a degen­er­ate work­ers’ state,” but as a soci­ety run by a new bureau­crat­ic col­lec­tivist” rul­ing class — in oth­er words, not real­ly social­ist at all. The sec­t’s rhetoric was one of stern con­fi­dence: his­to­ry,’ the mass­es,’ the tasks of the moment’ and so forth.” But this was a par­ty found­ed on doubt, rather than on cer­tain­ty.” Though this meant con­stant infight­ing, it also made for a com­bat­ive intel­lec­tu­al envi­ron­ment, a kind of think tank boot camp. It’s no won­der that so many labor politi­cos and aca­d­e­mics — Deb­o­rah Meier, Peter Novick, San­dra Feld­man — cut their teeth in groups orbit­ing the Flo­ral Park, Long Island hi-fi dealer.

Obses­sive anti-Stal­in­ism held the Shacht­man­ites togeth­er. A read­er of Labor Action (the Shacht­man­ite paper) once observed that the word Stal­in and its deriv­a­tives” appeared 114 times in a sin­gle issue. Isser­man tries hard to show that Har­ring­ton was not a stooge for Joe McCarthy. He crit­i­cized Sid­ney Hook and the Con­gress for Cul­tur­al Free­dom, call­ing it less an orga­ni­za­tion devot­ed to the defense of cul­tur­al free­dom than an agency pro­pa­gan­diz­ing the Amer­i­can par­ty line.” He nev­er took mon­ey from the CIA. But there’s no doubt that for all their sec­tar­i­an insan­i­ty, on some lev­el the Shacht­man­ites were actu­al­ly with­in the lib­er­al con­sen­sus of the 50s: They agreed that the Com­mu­nist Par­ty and the Sovi­et Union were the com­mand­ing threats to human freedom.

The anti-Stal­in­ist left sought allies among lib­er­als and advo­cat­ed down­right reformist poli­cies — not that any­one noticed. Much of The Oth­er Amer­i­can is absorbed in detail­ing the polit­i­cal zig-zags of an orga­ni­za­tion with a cou­ple of hun­dred mem­bers nation­wide, which held sym­posia on top­ics the prop­er forum for which is a late-night bull ses­sion. (For exam­ple, if a gen­uine­ly” social­ist coun­try had nuclear bombs, should it ever use them?) At first glance, the prag­ma­tism of the Shacht­man­ites seems more ludi­crous than any rev­o­lu­tion­ary rhetoric. But Isser­man sug­gests that because the Shacht­man­ites were will­ing to work with lib­er­al politi­cians, in a very odd way they were ori­ent­ed toward real polit­i­cal change in a man­ner that the New Left was not.

By the late 50s, Shacht­man came out in favor of realign­ing” pro­gres­sive forces behind the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Har­ring­ton ini­tial­ly ignored his teacher, and wrote in Nor­man Thomas for pres­i­dent in the 1960 elec­tion — some­thing he lat­er regret­ted as one of the remark­ably stu­pid actions of my polit­i­cal life.” For the rest of his days, his main polit­i­cal project would be the strug­gle to reshape the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty into a coali­tion of labor, civ­il rights orga­ni­za­tions and lib­er­al groups.

Har­ring­ton’s prag­ma­tism led him to write The Oth­er Amer­i­ca with­out men­tion­ing the word social­ist” once. (He ago­nized about leav­ing it out.) It’s an over­state­ment to say The Oth­er Amer­i­ca start­ed” the War on Pover­ty; the expan­sion of the Amer­i­can wel­fare state in the 60s was just one aspect of a post­war eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy that gen­er­al­ly pro­tect­ed unions, increased wages and main­tained full employ­ment. While Har­ring­ton was a mem­ber of the pres­i­den­t’s task force in the War Against Pover­ty, by most accounts he played a min­i­mal role in Graft­ing the anti-pover­ty pro­grams. (Dubbed the only respon­si­ble rad­i­cal in Amer­i­ca” by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., he lived up to the descrip­tion by sign­ing his mem­os, Of course, there is no real solu­tion to the prob­lem of pover­ty until we abol­ish the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem.”) The Oth­er Amer­i­ca, how­ev­er, with its vivid descrip­tions of Harlem and Appalachia, of urban hill­bil­lies” and the ter­ri­ble plight of the aging poor, unwit­ting­ly became the best piece of pub­lic rela­tions for the War on Pover­ty the John­son admin­is­tra­tion could have asked for.

Har­ring­ton’s roots in the anti-Stal­in­ist left encour­aged him to make alliances with lib­er­als, but they put him at log­ger­heads with the New Left. Through­out the 60s, Har­ring­ton was best known in cer­tain cir­cles for lock­ing out the fledg­ling SDS (descend­ed from the League for Indus­tri­al Democ­ra­cy, a Social­ist Par­ty off­shoot) from its offices because the Port Huron state­ment was insuf­fi­cient­ly anti-Com­mu­nist. Though Har­ring­ton apol­o­gized for the inci­dent for the rest of his life it’s not real­ly sur­pris­ing that it hap­pened. Unafraid of Com­mu­nist dom­i­na­tion, the New Left saw lit­tle rea­son to work with main­stream politi­cians. SDS pres­i­dent Paul Pot­ters’ 1965 descrip­tion of Tom Hay­den was apro­pos for the whole move­ment: Tom seems to be mov­ing clos­er and clos­er to a posi­tion that the lib­er­al estab­lish­ment (if not all lib­er­als) con­sti­tutes the most dan­ger­ous ene­my we confront.”

The split deep­ened dur­ing the Viet­nam War, when Har­ring­ton failed to sup­port the anti-war move­ment, think­ing it too sym­pa­thet­ic to the Viet Cong. Isser­man is care­ful to note that Har­ring­ton was always a paci­fist and nev­er sup­port­ed the war. When Shacht­man explic­it­ly came out in favor of the war in the ear­ly 70s, Har­ring­ton final­ly broke with him. But if he was­n’t in favor of the war, he was cer­tain­ly opposed to the anti-war move­ment. Har­ring­ton’s anti-Stal­in­ist social­ism — like Cold War lib­er­al­ism itself — was con­sumed by its own con­tra­dic­tions in the Viet­nam War.

To Isser­man, Har­ring­ton’s fail­ure to work with the New Left approach­es tragedy. Michael let pass the chance of a life­time to make a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist per­spec­tive rel­e­vant to the hun­dreds of thou­sands of Amer­i­cans who sup­port­ed the anti-war move­ment,” he writes. The Viet­nam War destroyed the Social­ist Par­ty, and with it Michael’s chance to reshape and rein­vig­o­rate the entire demo­c­ra­t­ic left in America.”

Har­ring­ton’s relent­less focus on eco­nom­ic issues, his moral seri­ous­ness, his vision­ary grad­u­al­ism,” his prag­mat­ic rad­i­cal­ism,” rep­re­sent, to Isser­man, the road not tak­en for the Amer­i­can left. If only the old Social­ists had been able to take charge of the anti-war move­ment, con­vinc­ing the kids to trade their Molo­tov cock­tails for del­e­gates’ pass­es, per­haps the left would not be as mar­gin­al­ized as it is today. If only the New Left had fol­lowed Har­ring­ton into the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, maybe Rea­gan would not have won in 1980 and his­to­ry would not yet be at an end. 

It’s hard to know what to make of a biog­ra­phy of some­one whose pri­ma­ry inter­est is that he rep­re­sents what did not hap­pen. Unde­ni­ably, there’s some­thing appeal­ing about Har­ring­ton’s pol­i­tics, espe­cial­ly com­pared to the crazi­ness of the New Left in the late 60s. Although the Social­ist Par­ty was a mere shell of its for­mer self through­out his life­time, in a sense Har­ring­ton real­ly did embody the Social­ist tra­di­tion in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. He reject­ed a tran­scen­dent, Utopi­an left­ism, believ­ing that mod­ern rad­i­cals had to walk a per­ilous tightrope,” on the one hand to be true to the Social­ist vision of a new soci­ety,” and on the oth­er bring that vision into con­tact with the actu­al move­ments fight­ing not to trans­form the sys­tem, but to gain some lit­tle incre­ment of dig­ni­ty or even just a piece of bread.”

Like Debs, he eschewed direct action, believ­ing that to 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 one’s fol­low­ers from those con­vert­ed by the sound of one’s voice and the strength of one’s argu­ments.” This kind of slow, patient mass orga­niz­ing and insti­tu­tion-build­ing is pre­cise­ly what the New Left failed to accom­plish, and it’s not hard to under­stand why Isser­man admires Har­ring­ton for at least rec­og­niz­ing its importance.

But does it make sense to ask whether Har­ring­ton’s efforts to realign” the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty could have suc­ceed­ed if the New Left had fall­en into line? It’s hard to say. There were, after all, real obsta­cles to reform­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty in the 60s and 70s. The moral abso­lutism of the New Left was part­ly youth­ful naïveté and rev­o­lu­tion­ary pos­tur­ing.” But it also reflect­ed a gen­uine sense of how com­pro­mised the lib­er­al con­sen­sus was, and how impor­tant the seg­re­gat­ed South was to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. The New Left­’s alien­ation from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty reflect­ed the ambigu­ous nature of the insti­tu­tion itself: the par­ty of labor and of the Sol­id South, of the War on Pover­ty and the Bay of Pigs.

There’s some­thing odd­ly rigid — if one want­ed to rib him, one might almost say sec­tar­i­an — about Isser­man’s implic­it crit­i­cism of the rad­i­cal style of the New Left. A tru­ly real­is­tic” approach to pol­i­tics would rec­og­nize that there are times when it’s appro­pri­ate for the left to work with the Democ­rats or oth­er lib­er­als, and there are oth­er times, as at the height of the Viet­nam War, when that’s a ter­ri­ble mis­take. Mil­i­tant mod­er­a­tion” always seems more rea­son­able, but there are times when it’s com­plete­ly off the wall. Prag­ma­tism makes sense when you have a fight­ing chance of exer­cis­ing polit­i­cal pow­er; oth­er­wise, it’s as self-delud­ed as dreams of world rev­o­lu­tion. As Michael Har­ring­ton knew too well, in pol­i­tics, as in his­to­ry, there is no room for saints.

Kim Phillips-Fein is a writer in New York City and a con­tribut­ing edi­tor to In These Times. She is work­ing on a book about the busi­ness back­lash against the New Deal.
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