Harrington’s Heritage

By Jack Rothman

Nowadays—especially among the young–Michael Harrington’s name isn’t  well known and his writings and accomplishments are scarcely recognized. Still, Harrington clearly was the most significant American socialist leader of the last half of the twentieth century. A recent dismissive and inaccurate portrayal of him (Socialist Worker, May 2013) moved me to reflect on and set straight Harrington’s place on the left and in the progressive movement.




Michael Harrington


In several articles, historian and journalist Joe Allen had a go at erasing Michael Harrington’s credentials as a genuine socialist. This was in the context of a back-and-forth with Jacobin co-editor Bhaskar Sunkara, who defended Harrington, each man landing a few punches and neither convincing the other. Allen had it in for Harrington for several long-ago errors that purportedly destroyed his standing as a socialist leader.

Among his transgressions: Mike arrogantly stiffed the early New Left, he supported the Vietnam War and thus American imperialist adventurism, and he was a soft social democrat who gave aid to the capitalist-permeated Democratic Party—thereby relinquishing any right to call himself either a socialist or a radical. Harrington, apparently, was also not personally nice to Allen on several occasions. The picture that emerged was quite bleak and pushed me to pen a different perspective.

Harrington formed and was the founding president of DSA, which has held its ground as a socialist spearhead over time in a rejecting and forbidding political environment. It has attracted intellectually powerful, committed intellectual activists like Cornel West, Frances Piven, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Gloria Steinem, among others–who align themselves with DSA. Harrington was an inspiring and persuasive speaker and brought young people and scholars into the socialist fold like nobody else during his era. As an outgrowth of his leadership, DSA is the largest socialist organization in the country, with more than 7, 000 members and active locals in more than 40 U.S. cities and college campuses.

Mike was a prolific writer of socialist literature—in-depth books like Socialism, Twilight of Capitalism, and The next Left. I especially liked his personal reflections in Fragments of the Century. I think writing was his fondest work and if he didn’t feel personally obligated to organize for socialism, he would have devoted his life to being an accomplished author. 

I won’t neglect to include his most influential book, The Other America, which set in motion the War on Poverty. That war wasn’t won, but it generated a vast network of safety-net programs to aid the poor. Some of these, like Head Start, have lasted until now. The Community Action Program brought to the fore black political leadership in urban areas, initiating a process of black political engagement that has been permanent and transformative. Harrington played a direct practical role as consultant and operator in the Johnson administration to inveigle these programs into being.

Hey, how many of his critics and their allies can claim achievements like that?

Like everyone else, Harrington on occasion stumbled. He waited too long to come out against the Vietnam War (out of misplaced loyalty to his mentor, Max Schactman.) But he did later oppose the war vigorously. Harrington was harsh with the Student Movement, criticizing them for their tactics. He later apologized openly for that. Actually, he wasn’t amiss on the basics. The movement had high goals and values, but its organizing methods were often mindless and sometimes atrocious. Proof: there’s no stable organized vestige of the movement in existence today. The Old Left, of course, had its big faults, but it possessed organizing teachings for the New Left, if they were willing to listen to anyone over age 30. But I don’t think it’s useful to fixate on these past slip-ups and Harrington’s missteps. After all, even the brilliant Lenin made a catastrophic goof when he appointed Stalin to be Secretary General of the Party.

It is as preposterous to castigate Harrington for not being a socialist as it is to castigate Barack Obama for being one. Harrington was a fully committed socialist who engaged tactically in pragmatic politics with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. He aimed to be at the “left wing of the possible,” working to accomplish gains for the workers and the dispossessed in the here and now, while aiming for a longer-range fully functioning socialist society. Harrington was both practical and ideological, but someone who I don’t perceive as enamored of dogma. In present-time political circumstances, given the dominating influence of the neoliberal contingent, the tone of this pallid, centrist Democratic Party and of its thin reed of a progressive caucus, it isn’t clear that Harrington would have the identical view he had on collaborating and forming coalitions with this Party.

I’ll attempt to put this discussion into contemporary context. The left now is trapped in an oppressive and intractable environment. The establishment and neoliberals are in an overwhelmingly powerful position, controlling money, government machinery, the media, think tanks, schools, and almost every other corner of the socio-economic structure. The left, including unions, have zilch power. A huge majority of the public don’t support progressive causes and hate radicals. So the left is in an unenviable, not to mention largely impotent, place. There’s no single, clear path to success from that position.

For that reason, there’s a lot of leftist fragmentation, with different branches adopting different tactics and strategies. We range from ideas of violent revolution by a small group of zealots (like with Lenin) to ideas of winning free elections through education and politicking (like Allende.) To this point, neither of those extremes or anything in between has proven to be a lasting “correct” course. So I believe experimenting with different modes of thought and action is a reasonable way to discover what approach or combination of approaches works best.

The point is, we should be more tolerant of each other’s views and struggles, all of us swimming in an ocean of great uncertainty, with potent undertows. Harrington was pretty proficient at laying out his course, and that of DSA, in theory and action. I wish others would be as good at setting out theirs. It will be valuable to have various coherent successes (and failures) to compare and to have a comradely dialogue about. I hope Joe Allen will grab a seat and join that conversation.

Jack Rothman, who was founding  re-organizer of the Los Angeles DSA chapter, is a professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Public Affairs, specializing in community organizing. He has authored some 25 books on social issues.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.