Harrington’s Dilemma

Harrington’s Dilemma

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 Thom


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.

In preparing this review, I opened his autobiography, The Long Distance Runner, and found this scribbled note:

For Tom,
      With fond memories of our past (except when I was being stupid!)
      And high hopes for all that you will accomplish for the cause.

I put the signed book down amid a flood of memories. Michael wrote this note while he was suffering from the last stages of throat cancer. I remember being shocked, when I last saw him, at the removal of so much of his neck and jaw by the surgeon, but also at the smiling dignity of this long-distance runner. Even today I’m not alone in still being able to hear the staccato pitch of his voice, the flashing passion in his eyes, the slashing, two-handed punctuation of his debating form. As for the reference to stupidity, while Isserman shares my difficulty in understanding its roots, it had to do with Michael’s harsh, divisive attacks on the New Left, which he spent many subsequent years regretting.

The same Michael who could rouse a thousand workers or students with a speech, who could be witty and gregarious in countless bull sessions at the White Horse Tavern, was also on a profound and inexplicable level a sectarian. The sectarian nature, religious or political, thrives on continuous doctrinal purification and organizational faction-fighting in the name of a Truth as revealed by oracle to his cult of followers.

From the fifties until 1970, according to Isserman, the mentor who was “destined to exercise the most lasting influence” on Michael was a former secretary to Leon Trotsky named Max Shachtman. Known to no one in the outside world, Shachtman managed to convince Michael, his friend Irving Howe and many other young men that they “were part of the elect.” They were “Max’s boys,” who listened raptly to his doctrine that the ultimate task of the socialist left was to oppose the Soviet Union, which had become a bureaucratic collectivist state under Stalin. What perhaps attracted Michael was Shachtman’s “third camp” position between the two bureaucratic collectivisms of capitalism and Communism. But since the Shachtmanites were Trotskyists, their real venom was reserved for rivals on the left. Trotsky’s widow described her husband in terms that also captured the Shachtmanites: as the last fighters of an “annihilated legion” whose principal duty was to “maintain, clearly, accurately, a doctrine, a historic truth, a resolute waiting.” Michael’s lifetime political stance could be characterized as just that “resolute waiting.”

The Shachtmanites were vectors of a toxic leftist tradition that Michael himself once described (in reference to Bella Abzug!) as “high-minded viciousness, an ugly inheritance from Karl Marx’s dyspeptic, angry attitude toward all opponents.”

They imagined themselves an elite cadre whose task was to “bore from within” to take over groups like the student branch of Americans for Democratic Action (which folded in convulsions as a result), to distribute party propaganda and hold forums to expose other leftists as impostors. Needless to say, new activitists like myself felt the last thing cold-war America needed was another movement against Communism. In our eyes the Soviet Union was neither a beacon of hope nor an immediate threat. We wanted America to live up to its ideals and stop supporting apartheid in the name of anti-Communism, and we wanted both sides to decelerate the arms race. According to Shachtmanite doctrine, this made us potential “Stalinoids” who had to be corrected at all costs.

What was Michael Harrington doing in this crowd? According to Isserman, “good-hearted, amiable Michael, defying expectations, proved a natural at faction-fighting.” In the early fifties, foreshadowing things to come, Michael was expelled from Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party because of his involvement in trying to take over its youth branch. In less than a decade, Michael would trigger similar internal crises with the new generation of radicals, like myself, who should have sparked his hope. Isserman’s account is readable and objective, covering such episodes as these:

§ In 1962 Michael spent the entire opening night at the founding convention of Students for a Democratic Society in Port Huron, Michigan, attacking the draft I wrote of the Port Huron Statement for its criticism of both sides in the cold war arms race, its suggestion that organized labor lacked a vision and its assertion that students were a historical agency of change. He left abruptly the next morning, later acknowledging that he hadn’t read the document.

§ Shortly afterward, Michael chaired an inquisitorial hearing on the Port Huron Statement by the League for Industrial Democracy, the parent organization of SDS, and ordered the firing of two SDS staff members (Al Haber and myself), the placement of locks on our doors and the impoundment of the organization’s mailing lists. While we continued trying to launch a student movement, he then went to Paris for a year.

§ In 1964 he joined the Democratic Party establishment in favoring a compromise that would give two nonvoting seats to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party while seating the white-only delegation at the Democratic convention. Since the expulsion of the segregationist Democrats would have achieved the very “political realignment” that Michael preached, the compromise was denounced bitterly as a sellout by civil rights activists.

§ From 1965 on, according to Isserman, Michael and his comrades “established the reputation…as a group that had little to offer to the cause of peace in Vietnam–little that is, except for criticisms of those who were actually trying to stop the war.” SDS leader Carl Oglesby said that while he originally admired Harrington and Howe, “here were these guys…denouncing me as a Red because I wouldn’t criticize both sides equally–which seemed bullshit because both sides weren’t invading each other equally, weren’t napalming each other equally.”

§ While Michael occasionally criticized the Vietnam War in editorials, he didn’t make a public speech against it until 1969, when Richard Nixon was in the White House instead of Michael’s Democratic labor allies.

By 1970 the logic of the Shachtmanites led them to support Nixon’s Vietnam policies, which was a line Michael would not cross. He sat down and wrote a nine-page, single-spaced memo of disagreement. Shachtman, Michael’s longtime mentor, never spoke to him again.

“His involvement in the Socialist Party had isolated him from some of the more significant political currents of the preceding decade,” Isserman says. Rejected by the Shachtmanites as too soft, alienated from the New Left as too establishment, Michael drifted politically in the seventies and eighties into more modest, pragmatic attempts to revive democratic socialism and function as part of a left wing of the Democratic Party. He helped form the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, a realistic retreat from creating a socialist party; DSOC became an umbrella for many activists who identified themselves as socialists. Michael himself became a Democrat of sorts and was elected as a midterm delegate to the party’s 1980 convention. But the hierarchy was in the process of moving toward the center, not the left, and quickly shut the door to independent participation in the platform drafting process. As the eighties continued, the times were not friendly to new socialist formations, so “Michael and his comrades spent a lot of time in other people’s parades,” Isserman says. Through it all, Harrington continued to lecture and travel as much as 100 days a year while raising two sons with his wife, Stephanie, in Larchmont, New York, writing prolifically and settling into an academic slot at Queens College.

Isserman is observant to note that “Michael had a gift of transcending his surroundings. People came to hear him speak in seedy little halls, where the dust lay deep on unsold copies of yellowing newspapers, and somehow came away thinking about the future potential of the Left.” That is correct, but only deepens the reader’s logical question of why this transcendent person drew so much of his psychic energy from what he himself once called “the little world of the New York left” where “the dust lay deep.”

Michael and I shared a Midwestern, Irish Catholic background, although he remained in the Church a decade longer than I. We both were high school sports editors who turned bohemian. We both tried to be poets before politics drew us to prose and polemic. He was a role model when I met him in 1960. His Greenwich Village apartment, a festering dump littered with books and beer cans, seemed, to my suburban Michigan eyes, like the only kind of place to live in at the time.

But from my youthful, idealistic standpoint, Michael’s “little world of the New York left” seemed suffocating, paternalistic and full of itself. To clarify what I mean, let me refer to Isserman’s account of a 1965 debate between myself and Irving Howe, described in the book as being “as celebrated at the time as the Shachtman-Browder debate had been for an earlier generation of leftists.” I knew nothing at the time, and know nothing more today, of the 1951 Shachtman-Browder debate, in which Shachtman supposedly skewered the deposed leader of the US Communist movement. I traveled from my community organizing office in Newark to debate Howe over the role of grassroots movements versus Democratic Party coalitions. I suppose I was brash, nothing more, but I felt insulted that night by Howe’s paternalistic needling, which passed for debating skills in those circles. Isserman, relying on Jack Newfield’s account, says I “stormed out of the hall, blinking back furious tears.” My own recollection is that Howe was unacceptably abrasive. I decided it was a mistake to dignify what Isserman calls his “baiting,” since that was what sectarians lived for, so I boycotted the scene by walking out. For myself, the “debate” was a brief, if painful, moment, quite irrelevant in comparison with, say, a meeting with Newark’s mayor about police brutality. But in that “little world of the New York left,” I would discover, the debate became a “key moment” in the lore of the left, even featured in televised documentary interviews forty years later by these “New York intellectuals” about themselves.

I was not “anti-intellectual,” nor were the other founders of SDS, many of whom were graduate students. We identified with intellectuals like the maverick sociologist C. Wright Mills, who wanted to sweep away the cobwebs of an older left. Like Harrington, Mills was a Marxist who wanted to save the early Marx from the dogmatic tyranny of the Soviet heritage. Like Harrington, Mills fought the stultifying pomposity and conformity of fifties intellectuals. But he identified passionately with young people around the world who were breaking “out of apathy,” which, Isserman notes, was a “spiritual connection Michael could not or would not make.” Early SDSers wanted to link up with Michael in a real war on poverty, in a real antiwar movement, in a real realignment of the political process. Instead, he remained wedded to a Marxism centered on organized labor as “objectively progressive,” and which belittled the New Left as “new Narodniks,” the student rebels of nineteenth-century czarist Russia whose error was to mystify “the people,” just as we were venerating black sharecroppers like Fannie Lou Hamer.

Michael’s identification was with Shachtman’s “annihilated legion” of true believers whose mission, all too often, was to tell young people why they were wrong, objectively speaking. Since Michael held the view that all “personal” matters were actually political, it is impossible to guess the psychological dynamics that were at work. Was it a role reversal, in which he changed from irreverent youth leader to a controlling father figure, as Isserman suggests? Or was it a transference from Michael’s early immersion in claustrophobic Catholicism to a latter-day claustrophobic Marxism? The book offers no new light on the matter.

But Michael Harrington should not be judged by the worst episodes of those years, for by that standard there would be few medals to give out. Let the lessons of sectarianism and the hazards of success be warnings to us all. All of Michael’s “stupidities” are forgivable and even forgettable beside the durable brilliance of his written work and its admirable nonconformity to an America that was so blinded by capitalism’s privileges that it could not see its poverty. It took rare power to see and care about “the other America” in those gilded times.

In the final paragraph of the final chapter of The Other America, Michael wrote that “the fate of the poor hangs upon the decision of the better-off. If this anger and shame are not forthcoming, someone can write a book about the other America a generation from now and it will be the same or worse.” I miss the man who wrote those words and shook America out of smugness. Where is the shame, where is the anger, at the bleeding gap between rich and poor today? Where is the Dickens, the Steinbeck, the Michael Harrington for our era?

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