The American political activist and educator Michael Harrington (1928-1989) was a tireless advocate of democratic socialism. He helped develop the War on Poverty conducted by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
Michael Harrington was born into a middle class family and educated at Holy Cross College (A.B., 1947), Yale Law School, and the University of Chicago (M.A., 1949). He was drawn to the political left early in his career, becoming a conscientious objector to the Korean War and serving as associate editor of a Christian anarchist publication, The Catholic Worker, in 1951-1952. Harrington soon converted to socialism and was one of its most eloquent voices for over 30 years. During that time he supported himself by writing, lecturing, and, after 1972, teaching at Queens College of the City University of New York, where he was a professor of political science.
He always managed to give prodigious amounts of time and energy to socialist activities. Among other things Harrington served as a delegate to international socialist bodies, conventions, and congresses; as chairman of the board of the League for Industrial Democracy; as chairman and co-chairman of the executive board of the Socialist Party; as chairman of the Democratic Socialist organizing committee, and as chairman of the resulting Democratic Socialists of America. He was active also in the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations concerned with labor, poverty, civil rights, and civil liberties.
In these ways Harrington showed himself to be a worthy heir of Norman Thomas, his predecessor as chief spokesman for American social democracy. Like Thomas he tirelessly advocated fair and humane socio-economic policies. But, again like Thomas, he was constrained by his role in the political system. Outside the United States, even in democracies, socialists can rise to the top. But in America, owing to the movement's narrow base, they can only be marginal politically no matter how great their talents. Harrington, like his forebears, chose this road all the same out of a deep faith in socialist ideas and as a matter of principle. By keeping the democratic socialist tradition alive they insured that the American left would not consist solely of totalitarians. The cost of doing this is that socialists generally, and Harrington in particular, had to give up even the hope of exercising power. For men and women of their persuasion, only the Democratic Party holds out this possibility, and Harrington, though often a supporter of Democrats, never joined them.
Yet lacking power does not necessarily deprive one of influence, and Harrington acquired a good deal through his writings. Few authors can claim to have affected history. Harrington did this with his first book, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962). Written at a time when his fellow citizens were busy celebrating their country's affluence, The Other America had tremendous impact. In it he spoke up for what he called the "invisible poor": industrial rejects, migrant workers, minorities, and the aged. Harrington's book came to the attention of President John F. Kennedy. As Kennedy biographer Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. explained it, the book "helped crystallize his determination in 1963 to accompany the tax cut (with) a poverty program." Kennedy died before his plan could be realized, but it was put into effect with impressive results by President Lyndon Johnson. If Harrington had done nothing else his place in history would be assured.
In fact, Harrington wrote a great deal more. His first book was followed in 1965 by The Accidental Century. Here he argued that the "accidental revolution" of the 20th century was the gap between technological progress and economic, social, and religious consciousness. A more ambitious book than The Other America, it sought to draw a complete picture of the defects in Western society that made socialism imperative. As with his previous book, Harrington was more interested in establishing the problem than arriving at solutions to it.
In his next book, Toward a Democratic Left (1968), Harrington addressed the question of how to bring about the good society. He called for a new political movement based on Black power, white youth, white collar labor unions, the new left, and religious groups. It seemed to Harrington, as to others at the time, that the elements for such a party already existed and needed only organization and leadership to become operational. Events, as usual, were against Harrington. The year 1968 witnessed not a new socialist or pre-socialist democracy, but the election of a conservative, Richard Nixon, and a setback to hopes of turning America leftward.
Of his later works, The Twilight of Capitalism (1976) is a critique based on his own revised version of Marxism. Some reviewers thought Harrington was a surefooted guide through treacherous political swamps. Sidney Hook, the foremost philosophical critic of Marxism, disagreed, maintaining that Harrington was out of his intellectual depth. In The Next America: The Decline and Rise of the United States (1981) Harrington attacked the new conservative mood, taking his customary view that America must go further left than was possible under New Deal liberalism. The Politics at God's Funeral (1983) argues that as God is dead man must henceforth rely upon democratic socialism. In making his familiar case Harrington continued to display the attributes that set him apart from most social critics. Though an apostate, he treated religion with great respect. Also, though a socialist he recognized that capitalism had shown a remarkable ability to reform itself, admitting that it had made great contributions to democracy.
Though some regarded his many books, articles, and speeches on behalf of his movement as fatiguing and irrelevant, no one doubts that Harrington is unmatched as a socialist champion. Even to his critics he never appeared to be anything less than decent and humane. His anti-Communism, which runs through all of Harrington's work, is in contrast to much of the writing by leftist intellectuals. Despite his professorship, Harrington was not a conventional scholar. He practiced what might be called the "higher journalism": a mixture of fact, analysis, and polemic. Few Americans have so successfully called attention to national shortcomings or raised more important questions. His books were coherent and well thought out. He took the reader seriously. His arguments were honestly made and did not distort or ignore inconvenient facts. Though his style wavered between the eloquent and the slipshod, as one reviewer put it, Harrington at his best was, in the words of another, "lucid, brilliant, and epigrammatic." As a political program socialism made little progress in America. But with spokesmen like Harrington it will remain a moral and intellectual force.
Harrington argued that his brand of socialism was essentially a highly modified Marxism which had been refined through the twentieth-century disasters of communism and various forms of state-sponsored socialism. His utopian socialist state would be similar to Sweden's recent experiments with worker-ownership and to some similar plans which have been undertaken in the United States as a consequence of bankruptcies and/or under-capitalization.
Michael Harrington was working on his final book and carrying a full load of academic and public lectures when he died of cancer in 1989.
Further Reading on Michael Harrington
Other books by Harrington include American Power in the Twentieth Century (1967), The Seventies: Problems and Proposals (1972), Fragments of the Century (1974), The Conservative Party (1974), The Vast Majority: A Journey to the World's Poor (1977), and The New American Poverty (1986). The best history is Daniel Bell, Marxian Socialism in the United States (1967).
Other books by Michael Harrington include Decade of Decision: The Crisis of the American System, New York: Simon & Schulster (1980); The Next Left: The History of a Future. New York: Henry Holt (1986); The Politics at God's Funeral: The Spiritual Crisis of Western Civilization: New York: Penguin Books (1983); Taking Sides: The Education of a Militant Mind. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1985); and Socialism: Past and Present. New York: Little, Brown (1989).
Other excellent secondary readings are Dorrien, Gary. The Vision of Michael Harrington. The Democratic Socialist Vision. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield (1986), pp. 5, 98-135; and Dorrien, Gary, Editor. Leaders from the 1960s: A Biographical Sourcebook of American Activism, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press (1994), pp. 517-522.