Michael Harrington and the Other Americas

by Maurice Isserman
Democratic Left - Spring 2012

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States, the book credited with inspiring Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in the 1960s. There will be events throughout 2012 celebrating that anniversary, an occasion all the more meaningful for taking place in a time of economic distress and a renewed debate over income inequality in the United States. It’s a shame that Harrington, the founder of DSA who died in 1989, isn’t with us to take part in that discussion, for he’d surely have interesting things to say about the persistence of poverty, and about more hopeful developments like Occupy Wall Street.

On thinking back on Mike’s political legacy to DSA, it’s worth remembering that he used the phrase “the other America” once with a different meaning, and prior to the publication of his book on poverty. That was at the end of the 1950s, which Mike had spent traveling around the country as an organizer for the Young People’s Socialist League, youth affiliate of the Socialist Party, one of DSA’s predecessor organizations.

At the dawn of a new decade, Mike saw reasons for political optimism. Unrest in the Soviet bloc swept away the notion that totalitarianism was the wave of the future. Mike argued that it was time for American intellectuals to discard the equally mistaken notion that the spread of “mass culture” had destroyed the possibility of democratic radicalism in the United States. Drawing on his experiences as an itinerant socialist agitator, Mike concluded in an article for the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal, published in May 1960, that an “other America,” that is an alternative America – a nation of generous democratic values and artistic and social creativity, a nation not “dominated by gadgets and mass media” – lay preserved beneath the surface of a homogenized profit-driven mass culture. In Seattle, for instance, where he had recently visited:

The people live in the presence of Mount Rainier… Driving in the city, one never knows when the turning of a corner will reveal the aspect of beauty. On a clear day, each hour, each period, is given a special definition by the mountain. And this geography enters into a culture. It is, of course, intermingled with the history of the region: logging, the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World], the Seattle General Strike of 1919…the weatherbeaten and brawling tradition of a port. Thus the coffee cups in many restaurants in Washington are bigger than they are in the East. Their shape developed out of an outdoor, working world and they are part of the texture of life in the area. At the trucker’s stop in the Cascade mountains where breakfast is ten strips of bacon, four eggs, and a pile of home fries, these coffee cups are one of the forms defining a history and a way of living. They are related to the towering fact of the mountain.

As an apprentice revolutionary in the 1950s, Mike had prided himself on his rigorous scientific socialism. But no stretch of dialectical materialism could get him from Mount Rainier to oversized coffee cups to the Wobblies. There was instead an unabashed lyricism in the passage, reflective of his earliest career aspirations as a poet. Although he would later be a critic of the more extravagant claims made on behalf of the revolutionary potential of the youth culture of the 1960s, Harrington’s own radicalism contained within it a distinct countercultural strain. Not that he expected the masses to drop out and move to Greenwich Village, his home since the late 1940s. But he saw no contradiction between the personal impulses that had led him to the bohemian quarters of lower Manhattan and the larger social transformation to which he was committed.

As in traditional Marxism, there was a teleological element to Mike’s socialism, but it was no longer (if it had ever really been) based on his acceptance of some iron law about the falling rate of profit or the like. It was instead closely related to the outsider’s stance that he had chosen for his own cultural orientation. His youthful bohemianism was not shaped by a desire to shock or deride his elders or mainstream culture. Rather, he assumed that what most people wanted, and lacked even in the “affluent society” of the 1950s and early 1960s, was some version of what he had already achieved in his personal life – that is, the power of self-definition. Socialism would come – not in his lifetime perhaps, but someday and inevitably – as people awakened to the claims of moral solidarity and to the joyous potential of community and meaningful work. As Mike shed the sectarian trappings of his earlier politics, his radicalism had become hopeful, generous, and expansive. Although steeped in European intellectual theory (both Catholic and Marxist), his cultural impulses reflected a distinctly indigenous tradition of radical individualism. At the start of the 1960s, he had come to believe that if the “other Americas” – the alternative America of intellectuals and students and artists and his Greenwich Village neighbors, and the excluded America of the povertystricken and the dispossessed – could unite in coalition with a democratic labor movement, they would represent a powerful redemptive force for social justice.

Maurice Isserman is the author of The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (2000), from which this article is adapted. He is also the author of the foreword to the 50th anniversary edition of Michael Harrington’s The Other America, just released in paperback by Scribner.

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