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Why Michael Harrington Matters

In a time when America and the world were moving rightwards, Michael Harrington kept the socialist flame burning.

Michael Harrington, dust jacket photo from Twilight of Capitalism (1977).

As the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — newly grown to more than sixty thousand members — prepare to meet in Atlanta this weekend, it will have been exactly thirty years since the death of the organization’s founder.

Michael Harrington, who kept the idea and promise of democratic socialism alive and relevant in a time when the world was moving to the right, died of esophageal cancer on July 31, 1989. He’d spent his final months writing the last of his sixteen books — an account of the global corporate autocracy he feared would dominate the twenty-first century, and a scholarly, nuanced, yet impassioned case for the socialism he saw as the only alternative to capitalism’s brave new repressive world.

When Harrington founded DSA’s predecessor, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), in 1973, it was not a propitious moment for socialism. The New Left had shattered into sects, the New Deal coalition had irreparably broken apart, the labor movement was losing both members and direction, and Soviet communism, however sclerotic, still loomed large enough to constitute most Americans’ idea of socialism.

Perhaps most damaging to socialist prospects, however, was the fact that the economic legacy of the New Deal — the broadly shared prosperity created by decades of union density, progressive taxation, social benefits, and public investment — was just then peaking. Americans’ median incomes hit an all-time high in the year of DSOC’s birth, only to begin a plodding, tortuous descent.

Harrington would speak in those years of “a slow 1929” (a phrase he borrowed from a French economist), but slow 1929s had few of the radicalizing effects of fast ones. Unlike his great predecessors — Eugene Debs, who spoke for and to early-twentieth-century workers excluded from both prosperity and the polity, and Norman Thomas, whose Depression-era listeners needed little schooling in the bankruptcy of capitalism — Harrington made the case for socialism in a time when even many progressive activists saw that case as a matter of largely academic interest.

That was partly because they didn’t foresee what Harrington saw — that the social democracies of postwar Europe and the watered-down welfare state that had brought a modicum of economic equality to America were far from being permanent. He knew that they were the results of social struggles that could be overturned by capitalist power, and that that power was growing as our working-class coalitions stagnated and decayed. “This nation must go as far beyond Roosevelt as Roosevelt went beyond Hoover,” Harrington would say repeatedly during the 1970s and ’80s, “or it’s going back to Hoover.”

Even when progressives didn’t believe Harrington’s prophecies, many were wowed by the scope and depth of his vision. That’s not all that wowed them. Harrington was a more accomplished writer than either Debs or Thomas, but like them, he won most of his converts through the power of the spoken word.

Harrington delivered more than a hundred speeches a year, traveling to campuses, union halls, and rallies for social justice, invariably meeting both before and after with DSA members and prospective members over drinks. A Harrington speech was both a tour de force and a tour de horizon. He invariably made the case for the moral vision and practical advantages of democratic socialism, tailored to the causes and controversies of the moment, buttressed by scholarly consideration of social trends and statistics, strengthened by his habit of entertaining opposing arguments before dispatching them.

Harrington provided listeners with something that was none too easy to find elsewhere on either the liberal or socialist left: a sense of historic context, of how his listeners’ own activism fit into a larger pattern they might otherwise have trouble discerning, of where they stood, broadly speaking, in the flow of history. And he provided them — subtly — with one more thing: an overwhelming sense of the moral urgency that underlay his critique of capitalism.

Harrington was schooled in a culture of speaking that would be impossible to replicate today. He learned rigor and logic from the Jesuits he studied with as a schoolboy; rigor, irony, and modes of attack from the Shachtmanites (a socialist sect that looked to Trotsky as the model rhetorician) he joined when he left the Catholic Worker; and leavened these influences with his affinity for poetry, his vestigial Irish lilt and Midwestern twang, his Greenwich Village cosmopolitanism, his generosity of spirit, and his willingness to confess doubt. No one else could weave Marx, Kautsky, Luxemburg, Virgil, Proust, Willy Brandt, and Jimmy Hoffa into a talk and still sound like the boy — the brilliant boy — next door.

Underpinning it all was a deep moral intensity. Mike held out the prospect of neither certitude nor salvation in his talks, but there was always an unspoken subtext to his speeches: If this cause is as urgent as I’ve demonstrated, as plausible as I’ve shown, and so important that I’m devoting my life to it — why, then, so should you.

And probably more than any other factor, that’s how DSOC, and then DSA, grew.

Keeping the Socialist Flame Burning

Whether through the synoptic force of his talks and writing, his strategic sense, or his considerable charisma, Harrington played a double role on the American left — socialist leader and the programmatic and strategic convener of the broader left.

As early as 1964, the liberal journalist James Weschler wrote that Harrington was the person most likely to unite the fledgling New Left, the labor movement, the civil rights activists, and liberal middle-class reformers into a powerful new force. He was one of only three people over thirty, Tom Hayden wrote in those years, that the student left trusted. But it was right then, in the early sixties, that Harrington forfeited that trust.

In 1962, Harrington attended SDS’s Port Huron Conference as a kind of (slightly) elder counselor on matters strategic and ideological. He ended up attacking the SDSers for insufficient anticommunism, with an intensity that the Shachtmanites generally reserved for hard-line Stalinists and their dupes — terms that described nobody who’d come to Port Huron. Harrington soon came to deeply regret his outburst, which helped create the rift between New Left and Old that no one else was able to bridge throughout the sixties.

In founding DSOC, Harrington parted company with many of his old socialist comrades who’d grown to detest the New Left and the middle-class progressives who’d walked precincts for Gene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, and George McGovern. As Mike saw it, DSOC, and later DSA, offered an opportunity not only to begin again the rebuilding of American socialism, but also, in the process, to bring together the various progressive constituencies that Vietnam had ripped asunder.

To that end, DSOC began building a progressive coalition within the Democratic Party, under the aegis of Democratic Agenda, a loose organization pushing for federally guaranteed full employment — the sine qua non, Harrington argued, for progressive advances. With full employment, white workers, who’d been drifting toward George Wallace and Republicans, would feel less threatened by the extension of long overdue rights to minorities and women, by their ascent into more and better jobs, and by the just demands of environmentalists. (Harrington also argued that when it came to electoral politics, given the United States’ entrenchment in a two-party system, socialists would reach a much wider audience and more effectively promote socialism by working within the Democratic Party — an argument that Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have since validated.)

Democratic Agenda became a rallying point for those unions opposed to the hard-line Cold War politics of George Meany’s AFL-CIO — chiefly, the United Auto Workers, AFSCME, the Machinists, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and various regions of SEIU. These were the unions where onetime New Leftists, occasionally through the intercession of DSOC, found jobs and, ultimately, careers. More broadly, Democratic Agenda became the political vehicle for Democrats opposed to the party’s drift to the right after George McGovern’s defeat, which intensified during Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

Under Harrington’ leadership, Democratic Agenda spearheaded the opposition to Jimmy Carter’s economic policies at the 1978 Democratic Midterm Convention in Memphis, where Arkansas’s young governor-elect, Bill Clinton, led the Carter forces and Harrington led the 40 percent of the delegates who opposed Carter and backed the Democratic Agenda platform of federally provided universal health care, full employment, and a shift away from fossil fuels. Democratic Agenda’s successes at Memphis so stunned the party establishment that the Democratic National Committee voted shortly thereafter to abolish midterm conventions.

As the United States descended from Carter to Reagan, Harrington continued his missionary work for democratic socialism, and increasingly warned about the rise and perils of globalized capitalism. He foresaw the possibility of a reactive nationalism among American workers, and endeavored to redirect their anger to the corporations that were shuttering American factories in search of cheap labor abroad.

I was present for a speech he gave to the 1983 convention of the UAW where he told delegates their enemies weren’t Mexican workers but the companies that pitted workers against each other. The delegates were largely silent at first, but as Harrington’s logic unfolded and his passion exploded, they raised the roof with their cheers.

Harrington died in 1989, just sixty-one years old. He did not succeed in building a mass socialist organization — that would require two decades more of capitalism’s erosion of democracy and economic security, the crash of 2008, and the elite recovery that followed. But no one who’d read Mike’s writing or heard him speak could be completely surprised at the instability and cruelty of capitalism, nor by the current democratic-socialist surge against the devastation that capitalism has wrought.

In a time when America and the world were moving rightwards, Harrington kept the socialist flame burning, and fitted the socialist idea to the global challenges of the twenty-first century.