Mike Harrington and his Legacy

By Maurice Isserman

Michael Harrington       Photo Credit: Gretchen Dohart

If there is a heaven, and it reserves a place for virtuous skeptics, I imagine the late Michael Harrington looking down with celestial satisfaction at the recent growth of Democratic Socialists of America, having played such an essential role in its founding 35 years before.

Harrington, who would have turned 90 in February 2018 but who died too young at age 61, was born in St. Louis and moved to New York City in 1949 to become a writer. In 1951, he began a life-long commitment to radical politics when he joined Dorothy Day’s anarchist-pacifist Catholic Worker movement.

Mike soon shed his anarchism as well as his parents’ Catholicism, and in 1952 left Day’s community for the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), youth affiliate of the battered remnant of the Socialist Party (SP). YPSL counted 134 members nationwide that year. And it was about to get smaller, because Mike joined a faction that split away to form an even fringier group, the Young Socialist League (YSL), whose adult mentor, Max Shachtman, had a long history of radical in-fighting. 

In the late 1950s, the Shachtmanites rejoined the SP. As newly appointed YPSL national organizer, Mike hitch-hiked across the country, visiting campuses from Brandeis to Berkeley to recruit young socialists (among those who joined in those days was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago named Bernie Sanders). Tom Hayden and other campus activists, in the process of creating Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), were among those Harrington influenced. Mike famously wound up quarreling with Hayden and other SDSers at their founding convention in Port Huron, Michigan, in 1962, over some serious issues (the Cold War, the Soviet Union, anticommunism), but also over unspoken generational tensions. It was a rift he later deeply regretted.

In the mid-1960s, following the publication of his book The Other America, Mike became famous as “the man who discovered poverty.” He was invited to take part in planning sessions for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty in 1964 and advised Martin Luther King Jr. on the civil rights leader’s plans for a Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. Like King, Mike wrestled with the political and moral dilemma posed by LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War, reluctant to sever ties with an administration that, domestically, had been so committed to a progressive agenda. King’s breaking point came in 1967, when he publicly denounced and marched against the war. Mike, for complicated reasons including ties to the comrades of his youth, the increasingly right-leaning Shachtmanites, took much longer to do so. It was probably the costliest political mistake of his life, among other results undermining any remaining influence he had over the New Left in the later 1960s. Mike never abandoned his opposition to communism as the antithesis of his own democratic socialist beliefs. But, through painful experience, he learned from King’s example that a morally consistent politics also proved, in the long run, a pragmatically sound politics. 

By the early 1970s, the old SP was hopelessly divided over the war in Vietnam and other issues, and in 1973, Mike and others, breaking with the right-wing Shachtmanites, created the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), which grew to several thousand members. Nine years later, in 1982, DSOC merged with the New American Movement (NAM), which had been founded some years earlier by former New Leftists. The new Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) represented a partial healing of old generational/political divisions. 

The greatest challenge the U.S. left has faced over the years is organizational discontinuity. As once-promising movements collapse (see 1919, 1956, 1969), new generations of activists must reinvent the wheel. DSA’s major achievement has been to preserve some organizational coherence and continuity on the democratic left.

DSA, it’s worth noting, was never entirely or exactly a “Harringtonite” group, and no one in the organization during Mike’s lifetime ever so described themselves. Mike did not seek nor did anyone in DSA cede him the cultish authority implied by the label. In both DSOC and DSA, robust internal debate was the norm, resulting in many of Mike’s proposals being voted down or revamped by his comrades. 

But if DSA had no “Harringtonites,” Mike’s leadership is still worth remembering for three reasons: (1) Mike’s commitment to building a socialist organization; (2) his commitment to creating broad independent coalitions; and (3) his commitment to communicating socialist values and proposals in accessible terms.

Commitment #1: The socialist movement, Mike wrote, “is itself the embryo of socialism.” The movement has had a long history of nurturing talented speakers, writers, and organizers who sooner or later departed its ranks to achieve individual celebrity in post-socialist careers (see, for example, newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann, labor leader Walter Reuther, and sociologist Daniel Bell). After the success of The Other America, Mike could have done the same. Instead, he doubled down on his commitment to building the movement. He spoke at hundreds of gatherings every year, for free at socialist gatherings, and, when paid, often donated his speaker’s fees to the organization. Nor did he shrink from the scut-work of organization-tending, including hours and hours of not always exciting meetings. 

Mike was not a martyr. He enjoyed the camaraderie that came with hanging out with old comrades and new recruits. But there was a moral seriousness at the core of his lifelong devotion to the day-to-day labor of building durable and effective organizations.

Commitment #2: By the 1970s, Mike identified his politics as “the left-wing of the possible.” Successful social movements, as measured in durability and influence, were those capable of winning real gains for their followers (see the labor movement of the 1930s and the civil rights movement of the 1960s). To be relevant to the everyday and pressing concerns of ordinary people, socialists had to work with those with whom they shared some common goals, but not necessarily a common vision of social transformation. For Mike, that meant building strong coalitions with the labor movement; the civil rights movement; church groups; campus groups; and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which (worth remembering) in the 1970s and early 1980s was still largely defined by its New Deal heritage.

What this did not mean was surrendering an independent socialist perspective. Mike worked with many leading Democrats, but he was not part of or subservient to the party establishment. He criticized Democratic leaders who retreated from social justice principles when they were in power (playing a leading role in mobilizing opposition to the conservative drift of Jimmy Carter’s administration) and when they were not. In the early Reagan years, he condemned the “Democratic collapse” in the face of the right-wing Republican agenda. With the exception of the Congressional Black Caucus, he wrote in Democratic Left in the fall of 1981, “the Democratic party either stood idly by while reactionaries mounted their savage attack on social programs…or worse, joined in the destruction of gains they themselves had pioneered.” Being the left wing of the possible did not mean ceasing to be left wing.

Commitment #3: In writing and speaking, Mike developed a voice that was at once passionate and persuasive. The Other America, one of the most influential works of social criticism in the 20th century, contains no overheated rhetoric, no disdainful posturing, no sanctimonious bullying of the privileged. Mike could convey moral seriousness without lapsing into moralism. His tone suggested that the reader was a reasonable person, and reasonable people, once apprised of the plight of the “Other America,” would agree on the need to find solutions. 

In 1989, five months before his death from cancer, Mike spoke to a February conference of the DSA Youth Section. He noted that some in the crowd would pay their dues for a year or so (“God bless you”) then move on to other things, and “probably remain, at least, a good liberal.” But to those who wound up staying for the long term, he had special words of encouragement, words as relevant today as they were then: “This movement should enrich you. This movement should allow you to lead a different kind of life. This is not a burden. At its best this is a movement of joy.” For Mike, democratic socialism was a generous, positive, and affirmative movement. May it always continue to be so.

Maurice Isserman—a charter member of DSA—teaches history at Hamilton College, and is the author of The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (2000). 

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Democratic Left magazine.

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