By John L. Elwell
Imagine a time when the United States of America was reeling from a race riot with a social activist having been murdered in a southern town. Imagine a time when poor and middle class youth of the nation were fighting overseas in a seemingly endless war that elites had declared. Imagine a time when a presidential candidate would exploit fear and hatred in order to win votes. And finally, imagine a time when another presidential candidate would try to unite us all against those who would oppose progress. It would be all too easy to assume that you’re imagining the current state of the United States in 2017, but if you know our history, then you know this is an all too familiar feeling. It was nearly the same context into which Michael Harrington, a founder of DSOC and eventually of DSA, would publish Toward a Democratic Left in 1968.
The names and places have changed, but the situations are the same. Instead of Robert Kennedy, we have Bernie Sanders. Instead of Richard Nixon, we have Donald Trump. Instead of the quagmire that was Vietnam, we have the numerous active military campaigns in the Middle East. And of course instead of the countless race-related riots and murders that took place across the south during the 60s, we have our most recent in Charlottesville.
In 1962, Harrington had published The Other America, demolishing the idea that prosperity was lifting all boats. The book would go on to influence both the Kennedy and the Johnson administration’s views on poverty and would be an instigator of Johnson’s planned “Great Society” which declared war on poverty. But even with Harrington as a sounding board, the war on poverty was greatly underfunded and escalation in Vietnam caused Johnson and the country to abandon it completely.
Harrington, on the other hand, would establish himself as one of the most prominent voices on the left, publishing tract after tract over the next three decades culminating in Socialism: Past and Future; published shortly before his passing in 1989.
Of his published works, one particularly interesting find is Toward a Democratic Left, published at the height of that era’s domestic conflict in 1968. Opening this book in 2017, nearly 50 years after it was published, is like opening a current political newspaper or magazine; the issues seem remarkably similar despite the passing of decades. It is as if this book were written as a response to the 2016 Presidential Campaign. Harrington pinpoints what would be one of the major failures of the Clinton campaign, that “all of the politicians and most of the professors hold that this country is a blessedly unideological land where elections are naturally won at the Center rather than on the Right or Left.” The politics of the Center no longer speak to the vast majority of the population and this was something that was evident all the way back in 1968.
As evident from proposals voted on at the convention, DSA is in the midst of a national discussion about our path forward. There are those who would become a political party while others remain committed to reframing the Democratic Party, and still others who favor some sort of middle ground. Toward a Democratic Left does not advocate for a complete societal reorganization, but rather pushes for a far more liberal society, “liberalism must recover…and it can do this only by a move toward the democratic Left. In saying this I do not propose a socialist reorganization of society even though I most emphatically favor it.” This mirrors the Sanders campaign, as the Senator was attacked from his Right for being too radical and attacked on his Left for being not radical enough. Harrington, in a similar way, did not envision the creation of a new party, let alone a new socialist society because he did not believe that the country was ready for such a transformation. Instead, he aimed to transform the Democratic Party into a true party of the Left (sound familiar?), “I use the term Left here to describe a program and movement which socialists and radicals can – and must – support but which appeals to the more traditional American aspirations for reform as well.” Toward a Democratic Left serves as the outline for an attempt at bringing the Democratic Party to the left, and Paul Heideman’s Jacobin article titled It’s Their Party goes into the history of that effort.
So how is it possible that a nearly 50 year old book can teach us anything about our present state and about our future? For one it shows us, especially the young among us, that the creation of a truly democratic society as well as a strong and able democratic Left has been the aim for generations. DSA and other organizations like it represent the evolution of ideas and movements from the past. Perhaps most important, it shows us what mistakes were made and where we can improve.
We move forward by learning from our past and as socialists we must learn from the efforts of history, regardless of their success or failure. DSA, as evident from the publicity and attention our convention drew, is set for continued growth. So as we continue to build DSA on a national level and strengthen chapters in our local communities, I recommend that new members crack open an old book and revisit the words and vision of Michael Harrington.
John L. Elwell is a member and former founding Co-Chair of DSA North Texas.
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