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New York: Public Affairs, 2000; 449 pp.
Review by Jason Schulman
The legacy of the late Michael Harringtonknown best to the public at large as the author of The Other America (1962), the book credited with sparking the Kennedy-Johnson War On Poverty is a contested one on the Left. Many see him as the heir of the democratic socialist tradition of Eugene V. Debs, to be honored for having dedicated his life to building a left wing of the possible, first in the Socialist Party and later as co-chair of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Others see him as basically a Marxist in theory and a liberal in practice, responsible for driving many U.S. radicals into the graveyard of social movements that is the Democratic Party.
The new and excellent biography of Harrington by historian of the U.S. Left Maurice Isserman, The Other American, tends towards the first view, albeit not uncritically. He makes it very clear that Harringtons excessive moderation and ambiguous stance vis-à-vis the Vietnam War and sectarianism towards the early New Left were both wrongheaded. But Issermans admiration for his subject is also obvious, even as he ultimately wonders whether the faint possibility of a mass American socialist movement has come to a close with Harringtons death.
Isserman does a superb job in tracing Harringtons ancestry and his early life, particularly the Catholicism which was to have such an influence on him throughout his days. A Taft Republican in his youth, Harrington became a socialist at Yale University. Briefly losing his faith, he moved to Greenwich Village in 1949 and lived as a bohemian poet. By 1951 he was again a practicing Catholic but this time of the anarcho-pacifist Catholic Worker variety. For two years Harrington lived an ascetic existence at the Catholic Worker House, attempting sainthood, but soon was drawn into the orbit of the Marxism of another politically unwordly group, the Independent Socialist League. Led by a former secretary to Leon Trotsky, Max Shachtman, the ISL were proponents of Third Camp revolutionary socialism; that is, they considered the USSR and other Stalinist states to be bureaucratic collectivist class societies, ruled by a new, bureaucratic form of ruling class. Unlike the orthodox Trotskyists, they did not consider the USSR worthy of any sort of political privilege in the Cold War by virtue of its nationalized economythey opposed both capitalist and communist imperialism. As Harrington would later put it, the ISL was a genuinely democratic sectbut a sect nevertheless. Seeking to overcome the past and their own marginality, the Shachtmanites joined the rump Socialist Party in 1958, then led by Norman Thomas, a former minister seen by the public as the heir of the tradition of Debs.
Harrington soon became heir apparent to Thomas. Following the lead of his mentor Shachtman, Harrington became an advocate of realignmentturning the Democratic Party into a genuine social-democratic labor party through the efforts of labor, liberals and radicals forcing out Democratic conservatives. A trip throughout the U.S. led to the writing of The Other America, which became a best-seller but did not mention socialism, out of fear of diverting attention from the plight of the poor and evoking all misconceptions that Americans had about the term. Suddenly, Harrington had the ear of top labor officialsand even the president.
But by this time Harrington had fully alienated himself from the emerging New Left. He attacked the Port Huron Statement of Students for a Democratic Society as insufficiently anti-Communist, among other sins. He proceeded to chair a hostile hearing on the Statement by the League for Industrial Democracy (LID), SDSs parent organization, and order the firing of Tom Hayden and Al Haber from the staff of SDS. LID then changed the locks on SDSs New York office doors, denying SDS members access to LID organizational facilities. Most tragically, as many of Harringtons ex-ISL comrades proceeded to push the Socialist Party rightwards and support the Vietnam Waras their anti-communism overwhelmed their socialist principles he stuck with them out of organizational loyalty. Though he opposed the war, and supported doves within the Democratic Party, his leader-centered realignment strategy attempted to bring together hawks and doves in an attempt to create a laborist Democratic majority. He supported the slogan of Negotiate Now! during the warbelieving that anti-Communist American workers would never support the demand of Out Now!when the whole of the New Left had long since decided that there was nothing to negotiate.
By 1970, Harringtonnow openly speaking against the war had broke with Shachtman, whose hatred for George McGovern and the New Politics Democratic left-liberals had led him to effectively support Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election. Harrington and his Socialist allies then broke with the SP and founded the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, envisioned as a democratic socialist presence within the mainstream of American politicswhich, inevitably, meant working with left-liberals in and around the Democratic Party. Though Isserman gives more attention to Harringtons life in the 1950s and 1960s than his last two decades, he makes some valid points regarding Harringtons political activities during his years in DSOC and later DSA.
Though in the early 1970s Harrington was worried that movements around issues such as abortion and gay/lesbian rights would scare off Middle-American workers, heand DSOCwould improve on such matters within the decade. DSOC would increase from 500 to 5,000 members by 1980, with Harrington as the groups primary attractioneven as he often found himself on the losing side in internal debates. In 1976, DSOC pulled together a labor-Left coalition, Democratic Agenda, which proved a pain in the neck to Jimmy Carters operatives at the Democratic presidential nominating convention. In 1978, Democratic Agenda got 40 percent of the conference vote for resolutions opposing the Carter administrations back-pedaling on full employment and confronting Big Oil at the Democratic Party mid-term convention. Harrington and his comrades, as Isserman puts it, were doing for liberalism what it could not seem to do for itself, which was to set forth a coherent response to the conservative attack on the welfare state.
In 1982, in an attempt to overcome the internal battles of the 1960s Left, DSOC merged with the post-New Left socialist-feminists of the New American Movement to form DSA. The group would not reach over 7,000 members until the early 1990s. Harrington worked tirelessly on DSAs behalf, but as Isserman notes, DSA failed to invent a meaningful political role for local members to play as socialists. Individual DSAers were involved in any number of progressive issues and organizations. But beyond wearing a DSA button to the meetings of these other groups there was seldom any meaningful connection between their socialism and their other activism.
Harrington seemed not to grasp the problem. He also spent far too much time involved in the Socialist International (SI), the worldwide grouping of social-democratic and labor parties, in an attempt to get the SI to live up to its name. It was no more likely that Americans were going to be inspired by Swedish active labor-market policies than they were by the Bolshevik revolution. Still, Harrington remained in the public eye as an opponent of Reaganism, and to a lesser extent as Mr. American Socialist, the conscience of America.
Harrington died of cancer of the esophagus in 1989. He was, in his own words, a man walking a tightrope, in danger of falling to his right (and becoming a pragmatist liberal) and his left (hence becoming another politically marginal radical). At times he did fall rightwards, with his top-heavy realignment coalitions that did not truly involve the union ranks, and his persistent lesser-evilism, which led him to unnecessarily stump for Jimmy Carter in 1976. But supporting left-wing Democrats did not make Harrington a class-collaborationist, as some socialists opine. The Democratic Party is not a party in any meaningful sense. The U.S. is the only liberal democracy in the world where the state, not parties, controls registration and ballot access. Class conflict runs through and within the Democratic Party, not around it (and also within the Republican Party, between free-marketeer, upper-class libertarians and working-class social conservatives). U.S. parties are coalitions of disparate elementsthey are not ideologically coherent. One cant even be kicked out of them; anyone can register and vote in primaries. Hence, both Klansmen and Communistsand DSAershave run for office, and even have been elected, as Democrats. While U.S. socialists, therefore, need not support every single Democrat, supporting those with progressive politics does not make one cross the class line.
Isserman ends The Other American on a pessimistic note regarding the future of American socialism. He says, effectively, that the U.S. has moved into an info- tainment culture in which authors of policy-related books will no longer become mass-media figures. Hence, without an heir apparent to the legacy of Harrington (and Debs and Thomas), the socialist movement is doomed. This analysis ignores the fact that it is easier today to be a socialist than at any time in recent memory, given the recent upsurge in anti-corporate activism, against sweatshops, the WTO, the IMF, and World Bank. Moreover, despite the labor movements modest resurgence, there are severe limits to what single-issue and laborist politics can accomplish absent the development of a strong socialist presence in American life. Even without a charismatic national leader, there is no choice but to continue the hard work of building a viable socialist organization in the U.S., to ensure that Harringtons work was not in vain. For all his mistakes, Harrington was dedicated to the socialist cause. His memory deserves no less than our continuing the struggle. Z
Jason Schulman is on the National Political Committee of DSA.