Memories of Michael Harrington, Part 2

Photo Credit: Gretchen Donart

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

By Deborah Meier

I can and often do picture Mike in so many of the settings of my life.

When he first came to our collective attention in the Young Socialist League, I was, I recall, like many others, somewhat suspicious.  What was this attractive, Midwestern Christian (Catholic!) doing joining our organization of socialist youth at a time when the left was disappearing in American life?  Little did we know what was around the corner (the ’60s) and how important Michael Harrington would be. He helped shape national policy on poverty, and he also helped us break out of our “sectarian” enclave.  He made our socialist politics seem less alien, potentially compatible with mainstream American politics if we had the patience of “long distance runners.”   He saw opportunities where we were too accustomed to see just the villainy of our enemies, and a system designed to place power further and further from the hands of ordinary people. 


Over the next nearly 30 years Mike became an important and beloved everyday presence in my life and the life of my children. But I realize, with both pride and sorrow, how important he was to many who were and are strangers to the socialist movement. His name keeps popping up in unexpected places.

 I suspect that if he were still here, he’d find helpful ways to confront us with both the distressing realities of this moment in history and reasons to shine our light in some unexpected places that might change today into a brighter tomorrow.   But then, we’re lucky to be able reread him, and to reinvent the intellectual and moral strength to figure it out ourselves. I wish we didn’t have to do it without him.  But, as Mike would say, “there are three reasons to be hopeful…” He’s almost always right.

Deborah Meiera member of the socialist movement under various names — SYL, ISL, DSOC, and DS — to name a few, has also spent the last 50 years involved in public education as a teacher, parent and activist.



By Maxine Phillips

Everyone remembers the first time he or she heard Michael Harrington speak. Mine was sometime in the early seventies in a drab room at the Catholic Worker house on the Lower East Side. I didn’t know Mike’s history with the Worker and was surprised that someone so famous would spend a Friday evening speaking to a small group made up primarily of derelicts and elderly leftists.  The lapsed Catholic friend who had invited me started hearing the Voice of God in the middle of the speech. The whole scene was very uncomfortable, except that as Mike spoke I was caught up in the common sense of his message and his uncommon description of socialism. Like many others, I would join the democratic socialist movement in large part because he was so convincing, so credible, so charismatic.

Later, as a staff member of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and Democratic Socialists of America, I regularly saw people respond to him with that same excitement. This was a man whose work had changed people’s lives: not only poor people’s, but our lives. By then, for me, the edge was off the excitement. Years of arranging agenda items for endless meetings, of juggling creditors, of internal wrangling gave me respect for Mike’s considerable organizational skills but dulled my ability to see land at the edge of the swamp. 

Then he would step up to the podium and the fire would flare. No matter how tired he was, no matter how dismal the external or internal political situation, he could call forth the best in us, holding out a vision of the new world. He always cautioned that socialism was not a religion, which is true. But he preached it with such fervor and made so many “altar calls” that one could get confused. As “chair of the Catholic Atheist Caucus,” he might wince at the following description, but his life illustrated the biblical passage that those who “wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run, and not be weary, and they shall walk, and not faint.”  The strength finally gave out.  The work and the legacy remain.

This article appeared in the Winter 1990 issue of Dissent magazine as part of a series of tributes to Michael Harrington.

Maxine Phillips, a former national director of DSA and current volunteer editor of Democratic Left.



By Joseph M. Schwartz

I first heard Mike Harrington speak in the spring of 1972, my freshman year at Cornell.  He urged the audience to back McGovern for president, which for Harrington was actually a left-wing thing to do, as much of the established labor bureaucracy thought McGovern insufficiently anti-communist.

I already believed, as did many anti-Vietnam war activists, that Harrington had stayed far too long with the insufficiently anti-war, dying Socialist Party. I also believed that there existed no significant differences between the two “bourgeois” parties. 

I soon reconsidered my objections to Harrington’s backing a Democrat for president. I went to Toronto that summer for a meeting of US anti-war activists with representatives of the National Liberation of Front of Vietnam (NLF). The NLF told us they wanted the anti-war movement to work for McGovern. After all, they said, there are anti-war as well as Cold War Democrats and McGovern came out of the progressive wing of the Democrats(!).

I got to know Mike well when I was the first campus organizer for his Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) in 1979-1981; I often advanced and then followed up his speaking gigs that aimed to build campus chapters.  Mike devoted incredible time to the campus branch of DSOC (and then DSA). He never missed a winter or summer youth conference and always drank us under the table. In part, Mike himself admitted he was trying to make up for acting in a sectarian manner towards early SDS (even though many of the best folks out of early SDS eventually came through NAM into DSA).  

Harrington was the socialist you took your parents to hear if they were “middle-American,” to show that socialists weren’t crazy. Mike invariably gave an accessible version of Marx’s critique of capitalism. Harrington’s basic argument: capitalism was a social system, interdependent and cooperative in the way it produced the world, uncooperative in its governance, and often anti-social.

Mike’s last book, Socialism: Past and Future, written under the cloud of terminal cancer, realized that what we now call the neoliberal counter-revolution would render the socialist project more difficult. From his involvement in the 1988 Jackson campaign Mike came to believe, I think, that a new form of Rainbow Coalition would have to be built (a movement less dependent on the institutional labor movement and more open to people whose primary identity centered on race, gender and/or sexuality).

While defending the gains of social democracy, Mike knew that its inability (at times, unwillingness) to challenge capital’s control of investment would render its gains quite tenuous, particularly outside of the Nordic countries. The task Mike passed on to us: to build the type of radical democratic socialist movement that he began to envision right before his premature death from cancer at age 61 in July 1989.

Joseph M. Schwartz, DSA vice-chair and professor of political science at Temple University.

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