Memories of Michael Harrington

Harrington speaking at a DSOC event (Gretchen Donart)

We continue our recognition of Michael Harrington’s contributions with recollections from several of our comrades who worked with him.

By Jack Clark

A mistake I’m glad I made led directly to my getting to know Mike Harrington well.

In 1969, I joined the University of Massachusetts chapter of the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), the youth group of the Socialist Party (SP) which Mike chaired. YPSL opposed the self-defeating antics of some elements of the student left. My mistake consisted in thinking that YPSL shared basic goals of the student left, such as ending the war in Vietnam. Soon enough I was caught up in a faction fight within YPSL and the SP over the war and a range of related issues. Mike was the leader of our faction, the Coalition Caucus in the SP. By late 1972 I had moved to New York City to become organizer for the Coalition Caucus. I threw myself into the Labor for McGovern campaign, organized other young socialists to join picket lines for UFW boycotts and organized to maximize our caucus’s strength at the Dec. 1972 SP convention.

The 1972 SP convention was a debacle. The majority voted down a motion to condemn Nixon’s terror bombing of North Vietnam, which was happening as we met. Social Democrats USA became the new name of the organization. Mike conducted himself with dignity through several days of vicious attacks on not only his politics but on his character. Despite urgings from many followers, Mike refused to walk out. Months later he resigned, and nearly a year later we founded the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee as a new group, not a split from the old SP. That fresh start made all the difference.

Over a seven-year period I worked full time for the movement. In retrospect, I never worked harder, and I never learned so much. I saw Mike’s great skill at bringing people together. In the midst of an escalating political discussion in our leadership committees, Mike would define an emerging consensus. We’d joke about his seeing harmony in conflict, but he was genuinely skilled in finding common ground.

Finding common ground in larger politics also animated Mike. He worked tirelessly to bring our little group into closer alignment with what he saw as a potential majority coalition in American politics. As the Congressional Black Caucus was forming its agenda, Mike was writing about full employment policy and cementing alliances with Gus Hawkins and John Conyers. Appealing to historic ties to the socialist tradition, Mike built links to the UAW, AFSCME and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. When Bill Winpisinger emerged as leader of the Machinists union and self-identified as a "seat-of-the-pants socialist," Mike Harrington and DSOC were the natural place to turn. Bill Lucy of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and Joyce Miller of the Coalition of Labor Union Women identified with DSOC because of Mike.

Unlike our erstwhile comrades in SDUSA, Mike never dismissed change agents from outside the House of Labor. For a Debs Dinner honoring a major UAW leader, Gloria Steinem gave the keynote speech. Links between building trades workers and environmentalists were forged in local DSOC full employment coalitions. Organizing students to build a new generation for social change was always a priority; Mike spoke at all the youth conferences. Mike made time to attend meetings of the emerging Hispanic Commission within DSOC, and committed atheist that he was, he engaged respectfully with the Commission on Religion and Socialism.

If he lived to celebrate this birthday, Mike would have been 87. That’s not exceptionally old for someone of his generation. As it is, we lost him at age 61. He left us his writing, some records of his powerful speeches and the legacy of an American socialism rooted in the struggles of our fellow citizens to improve their lives today and tomorrow. We mourn him still, and we live to build on his legacy.

Jack Clark served as national secretary of DSOC from 1973-79.  He has also been chair of the New York City local of DSOC and Boston local of DSA.

By Penny Schantz

I met Mike Harrington at Queens College in 1976. As a 17-year-old freshman, I had the chutzpah to ask the famous professor to let me take his graduate seminar “The Politics of the Labor Movement.” He let me in, I did well and Mike became my advocate. He helped me get into Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations program and his reference landed me a summer internship at UAW Local 259 led by DSOCer Sam Meyers. The intellectual foundation laid by Mike’s seminar and the practical experience of working with Sam ingrained in me a deep conviction: being a socialist makes me a better trade unionist.

I became active in DSOC’s Youth Section in its early years. Determined not to repeat mistakes he made in the 1960s, Mike was supportive of the Youth Section and prioritized speaking on campuses. He exhibited an almost saintly patience with hecklers from the sectarian left. As youth organizer, I was often on the road with Mike. Listening to his countless speeches taught me public speaking by osmosis. Mike’s flair for storytelling made a delightful treat for staffers, gathered in the office to hear the highlights of his recent travels.

For years afterwards, Mike met me at a Flushing diner when I visited NY. Sipping a vanilla milkshake in the later years of his illness, he continued to provide encouragement, nurturing and wise counsel. I wish he knew how much he later inspired my international work based in his beloved Paris.

Penny Schantz is the former AFL-CIO International Representative and DSA youth organizer.

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