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MICHAEL HARRINGTON AND HARRINGTONISM: A CRITICAL APPRECIATION by George Fish
MICHAEL HARRINGTON AND HARRINGTONISM:
A CRITICAL APPRECIATION
“Michael Harrington.” It’s a name that gets tossed around by members of DSA, sometimes in negative and derogatory ways. But simply put, DSA, as an organization advocating democratic (as opposed to authoritarian) socialism, that fights for free, honest and open elections for achieving socialism based on democratic self-determination and for transformative change for the here and now, is Harringtonist to its core. Harringtonism is the guiding ideology of democratic socialism in the US, and the basic set of political principles that separates DSA from the authoritarian, totalizing, and revolution-fantasy nostrums of anarchism and Marxism-Leninism.
Not that Michael Harrington was perfect. Certainly his red-baiting attack on the young radicals who were involved in the founding of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS, itself established as the youth group of the old-line social-democratic League for Industrial Democracy in 1962) was terribly flawed, and is well documented as such in Kirkpatrick Sale’s 1973 history, SDS, pp. 60-68. For them, Harrington’s harsh critique of them as being allegedly “soft on communism” smacked both of redbaiting (when they were also quite critical of Soviet-style “socialism”), as well as being hectored and lectured to as naïve children by one of their supposedly older, and thus naturally more experienced and aware, “betters.” For these young SDSers, Harrington’s direct attack was both hostile and condescending, and clearly the account given by Sale bears this out.
Also flawed was his reluctant understanding that the anti-Vietnam War Movement was not some sort of “communist front” but a popular resistance: both as a Vietnamese response driven more by nationalism than Stalinism, and as a deep revulsion among the US and Western young, moved by conscience to see it as a fruitless, endlessly brutal, war against a non-Western population. Yet, Michael Harrington saw neither of this for a long while, though he later changed his mind, at least in part; his cherished ties to the centrist hawks of the then-US labor movement blinded him to this, and caused his abstention from the broad-based antiwar movement. Also erroneous was his confusing the old-line centrist union leaders of the AFL-CIO labor movement with the union rank-and-file. (Which was organized labor of the 1950s and 1960s except for the exiled Teamsters, kicked out of the AFL-CIO for corruption and criminal activities; and a handful of independent labor unions, notably the International Longshore Workers Union [ILWU] and the United Electrical Workers [UEW], which were labor pariahs regarded as “pro-communist.”) The AFL-CIO was then tightly under the autocratic rule George Meany, who’d been in power since 1955, brooked no dissent, and was a fierce foreign policy hawk. (Harrington later changed his mind on this also, and, admirably, later corrected this by helping many young activists get jobs in unions.)
To be fair and honest to Michael Harrington, though, we must also acknowledge that he did come to oppose the war in Vietnam. Harrington was no knee-jerk Cold Warrior “liberal,” he was always a principled anti-Stalinist horrified at how the word “socialism” had become identified with Soviet-style authoritarianism, and knew better than to conflate anti-Stalinism with a simplistic anticommunism. This goes back to Harrington’s early days in the Independent Socialist Club under his mentor, Max Shachtman, which sided neither with the Soviet-led “peace camp” nor the US-led “democratic” camp, but always understood that Stalinist “socialism” was neither democratic nor socialist.
On the issue of war and peace, had he lived Harrington would certainly have opposed US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and stood with Bernie Sanders in calling for a “level playing field” on the issue of Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians. But also, he would’ve opposed both Netanyahu’s chauvinism and the settlements on the West Bank as well as Hamas’s call to “drive the Jews into the sea.” He certainly also would’ve been neither naïvely pro-Assad or pro-Putin, and articulated that a mere “anti-imperialism” that translates into a knee-jerk anti-Americanism is not a principled socialist foreign policy.
During the time of Michael Harrington’s greatest political influence, the mid-to-late 1960s, George Meany and his acolytes controlled the AFL-CIO with an iron fist, tolerated no dissent, and even went so far as to brand delegates to the 1972 Democratic Convention who’d been elected instead of those the AFL-CIO supported as “faggots”! Openly opposing (or even subtly criticizing) hawkish, hidebound Meany and Meany-ish politics could well be a political death sentence. But Michael Harrington would’ve been proud to see the leadership of the AFL-CIO move from a Meany acolyte, Lane Kirkland, to, first, a John Sweeny, then a Richard Trumka, which moved labor politics to a more open embrace of the poor, African American and other racial minorities, women, immigrants, and others marginalized from “mainstream society;” to see rank-and-file union locals and even some national unions endorse Bernie Sanders for President; to see the emergence of dissident union caucuses such as Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the continued publication of such as In These Times, Labor Notes, and now Jacobin and a revamped Dissent; and the emergence of Our Revolution, its sister affiliate Labor for Our Revolution, and the Sanders Institute. Not to mention the nationwide wave of teachers’ strikes!
On the other hand, despite a noble impulse to break from the stifling “moderation” of the Eisenhower years and the confrontational Cold War politics of the post-World War II era, the young 1960s New Left’s understanding of the Cold War and the “irrelevance” of “anti-communism” certainly was naïve, and created all sorts of problems for its flagship group, SDS, in the future. When Marxist-Leninist groups actively entered it, most notably the Maoist-Stalinist Progressive Labor Party, with its student activist cadres all voting as a bloc and giving not an inch on opposing positions within SDS, SDS’s response to such “Marxism-Leninism” was for its leadership to try and prove itself more Marxist-Leninist than the Marxist-Leninists—which led the New Left of the late 1960s to not only organizationally fall apart with the demise of SDS as a mass-based movement of politically left youth in 1969, but also degenerate into Weatherman, a neo-anarchist grouping with Maoist trappings that overtly practiced confrontational violence and strategic bombing of public buildings in order to “spark the revolution;” then, in response, to the proliferation of impotent anti-Weatherman Maoist sects in the 1970s. But the better strains of the “far left,” such as some Trotskyists and the dissident Trotskyist offshoot founded by Max Shachtman (as mentioned, a direct political mentor of Michael Harrington), understood well the basic difference between socialism with democracy, and Stalinist “socialism” without it.
So, despite these significant misunderstandings on the part of Harrington, later history does partially absolve him; and the founding of DSOC, and later, DSA, by Mike Harrington, and his active role in them until his death in 1989, certainly vindicates his ideas in many key ways. But one can’t say the same for the young acolytes of Weatherman and Maoism that grew out of this New Left, who not only enabled both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to successfully run for President by opposing what remained of the New Left, but also succeeded in defanging organized leftism in the US from the early 1970s until the early anti-globalization protests of 1999 and the early 21st Century, leaving the political landscape without any kind of significant left presence except for one hopelessly out-of-touch, sectarian, beleaguered and marginalized.
There is, indeed, an honorable socialist tradition that opposes both unregulated and repressive capitalism and the authoritarian degeneration of “socialism” USSR-style, which made socialism synonymous with Gulag in the eyes of many people. This socialism, democratic yet positively transformative, was the acme of Michael Harrington’s socialism—and, though he’s never been a member of DSA, also informs the positive and aggressive “democratic socialism” of Bernie Sanders. Had he lived, I’m certain, Michael Harrington would’ve been proud of Bernie.
Further, Michael Harrington would’ve certainly been proud that DSA has become the political home now of vital, exciting young people galvanized by Bernie Sanders and new to left politics, such as 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who are infusing new life into our venerable organization!
Also, in articulating his political vision that led to establishing DSOC and later DSA, Harrington found himself in a minority within the Socialist Party, which not only voted against him, but changed its name to Social Democrats USA (and became defunct a few years after that), while DSOC, later DSA, continued, and now thrives since 2016. For the old Socialist Party had become a place where a hidebound, right-wing form of anticommunism had taken over in place of a principled anti-Stalinism; where once self-professed socialists were often to the right of liberals and the Democratic Party on even domestic issues; and where members of the Socialist Party then, such as Jeanne Kirkpatrick, former Ambassador to the UN under Reagan, became neoconservative hawks echoing Republican talking points on the Cold War, even in the face of Gorbachev.
Also, Michael Harrington made all the “right” (in both meanings of the word) enemies—from William F. Buckley, Jr. to Irving Kristol, former anticommunist right-wing social-democrat editor of the New Leader “moderate” political magazine turned self-professed “neoconservative,” who had trouble precisely with the status quo because it had become “liberal”! And to having his politics disavowed by such as the “Senator from Boeing,” Henry “Scoop” Jackson, arch-Cold Warrior Senator from the State of Washington, where Boeing was a major employer! This, too, is part of the legacy of Michael Harrington and Harringtonism.
Michael Harrington was also correct in seeing the locus for socialist struggle within the Democratic Party, and constituting DSA as the left wing of the Democratic Party, rather than chasing the political will-o’-the-wisp through “anti-capitalist” third parties, which have proved themselves electorally irrelevant, and sometimes even bizarre. (Consider the Green Party candidate in the 2018 Ohio election who claimed to be descended from space aliens!) Bernie Sanders’s successful campaign for President in 2015 and 2016 running as a Democrat certainly vindicates Harrington on this.
Michael Harrington was, furthermore, a prolific writer who had direct impact on progressive US domestic policy (e.g., Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty), and through many books, starting with 1962’s The Other America—which exposed the vast extent of poverty still prevalent in the US’s “affluent society”—thus laid out a compelling vision for an up-to-date democratic socialism; in terms of practical politics, Harrington’s vision directly inspired aspects of both Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society . While we who are veterans of DSA may agree or disagree with parts of it, such as his knee-jerk (but understandable for the time) anticommunism, or for his lack of perception in how limited the results of the New Frontier or the Great Society would be (again, understandable for the times he was in), there is no questioning that, as DSA members, we still follow in the vein he laid out: we seriously engage in electoral politics, we wish to transform the US in the here and now, and we wish to reach out to ordinary working people, not just preach to the already-converted left choir. As DSAers and North Star caucus members, we are all united on these three essential points—which is integral to Michael Harrington’s understanding of the tasks of the US left to above all, “speak American” and be “the left wing of the feasible.”
While DSA members do have differing assessments of Michael Harrington and what constitutes Harringtonism, we should certainly agree that what Harrington promulgated in the name of socialism differs fundamentally from both Marxism-Leninism and anarchism. But DSA does have a specific understanding of socialism that is not only rooted in the political vision of Michael Harrington, it also separates DSA organizationally from the Marxist-Leninist (or Leninist-Trotskyist) or anarchist tendencies that have shaped left politics in very sectarian and unattractive ways.
Such is the legacy of Michael Harrington and Harringtonism, a legacy that, despite its faults and shortcomings, has also demonstrated its positive, constructive side.
Biographical note: George Fish is an At-Large member of DSA living in Indianapolis, Indiana, an extensively-published left/socialist writer and poet, and a rank-and-file member of UFCW Local 700.