Maurice Isserman's The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington evokes and will enrich the legacy of the last great American socialist in the tradition of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas. In that once-powerful tradition, the socialist orators and organizers gave meaning to the immediate struggles that marked their age (industrial unionism for Debs, the New Deal for Thomas) by a deeper call to change the capitalist system itself.
Michael Harrington inherited this proud mission from his mentor, Norman Thomas, keeping it alive with thousands of speeches starting in the apathetic fifties, countless efforts to build socialist organizations, participation in the Socialist International with figures like Willy Brandt and François Mitterrand, and the publication of thirteen books and essays too numerous to count.
The most important was The Other America, a surprise bestseller that opened America's drowsy eyes to poverty in the midst of plenty. Released in 1962, it provided a useful analysis for civil rights and student activists and captured the attention of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, making Harrington the most relevant American socialist of his generation.
The dilemma of the socialist, as Michael defined it using the dichotomies of his early Catholic training, was to strike the precise balance between "the pilgrims of the absolute" and "day to day parish workers." The "absolute" was the banner of socialism, which he saw as the integrating explanation of injustice as well as its solution. But socialism was not on the US agenda, which left the chores of "parish work," whether through the Catholic Worker movement or the daily struggles of organized labor.
Parish work, in turn, was limited to a futile politics of "moral gesture," he believed, unless rooted in a larger analysis and movement toward socialism. That was the political double bind that confronted Harrington at virtually every stage of his public life, from the fifties until his 1989 death from cancer at a premature 61. In a broader sense, it is the dilemma faced by anyone committed to dealing with injustice in the here and now while also trying to eliminate the roots of injustice in the long run. As we asked at the beginning of the sixties, can we both be visionary and relevant? The dilemma is not made easier for those, like myself, who never felt that economic class was the axis on which the world turned or that socialism was a Holy Grail. We all want to feel part of something larger, to know that our single issues fit into a bigger picture, that we can name and desire an alternative to predatory corporate globalization. The insistence of Michael Harrington that change requires more than new faces in high places, that institutions must be transformed, is a continuing challenge for progressives today.
For Michael, the alternative was always democratic socialism, which meant public control of private corporations, achieved step by step through "visionary gradualism," with a realignment of the Democratic Party into a party representing labor, minorities and people of conscience. His socialism was a living tradition in which one constantly argued over Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, objective conditions and emerging tendencies within the various Internationals, from the Paris Commune down through the tepid leftism of the European labor parties. Michael himself was so immersed in European political discourse, so involved in the Socialist International, that former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme once said he would have become a prime minister were he European.
So serious was the dilemma of "the absolute" versus "parish work" that Michael confessed profound guilt at leaving the call for socialism out of a book on poverty. When it became a bestseller, he was recruited from his funky Village bohemia to the inner chambers of the White House for weeks at a time as the War on Poverty was hammered out. He thus became perhaps the first left-wing celebrity since the McCarthy era. This heady overnight success, he later revealed, caused a nervous breakdown in 1965 that took several years of therapy to mitigate. (So ideological was Michael that he described his breakdown as "a minor psychological symptom of a major political problem in Marxism itself," i.e., the contradiction of being a successful socialist in a capitalist system.)
His intense devotion to being a public intellectual, to taking a critical stance toward even his own success, to treating every personal issue as a political one, perhaps accounts for the staying power of his written work. I have thousands of books at any one time, throwing them out as their utility diminishes. On my bookshelf at home are nine of Michael's books, more than any other author: Socialism (1972), Fragments of the Century (1972), The Twilight of Capitalism (1976), The Vast Majority (1977), The Politics at God's Funeral (1983), Taking Sides (1985), The Next Left (1986), The Long Distance Runner (1988) and Socialism, Past and Future (1989). I lent an original of The Other America, autographed by Michael in 1962, to some lucky forgotten soul, or the Harrington works would number ten. (Next highest on my gorged shelves are seven each by James Baldwin, Annie Dillard and André Brink.) Michael's books are irreplaceable, a legacy of radicalism at its most intelligent, undiminished by time.