Michael Harrington
Michael Harrington; drawing by David Levine

In his memoir of his life in the socialist movement during the last two decades, Michael Harrington calls American socialism a movement that “was, and is, a historical failure.” He describes how he helped to bring about the merger of the two major American socialist organizations in 1981—resulting, he writes, in the “largest democratic socialist group since about 1935,” with all of six thousand members. He once invited Democratic delegates to a socialist breakfast at the 1974 mid-term Democratic convention, “and then stood, nervously embarrassed, in an almost empty room until the time came to end an event that never should have been begun.” Harrington is not bitter; he remains hopeful even as he describes his position as a political outsider. But he also implies that socialism in the United States has been more a convenient threat to be exploited by the right and center than a movement that might, someday, come to power.

Yet even so, Harrington’s achievement has been considerable. He has never run for political office, as did his predecessors on the organized left, Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas. But as the current cochair of the Democratic Socialists of America, he has combined impressive rhetorical powers with an informed, analytic intelligence equally at home among academics, liberal politicians, and blue-collar workers. In thousands of articles and speeches and fourteen previous books, he has argued for his views with passion and persistence. “I am running toward the kingdom of humanity,” he writes here, “and I know perfectly well that I will never see it. Perhaps no one will.”

In any Western European country a man with similar skills and accomplishment would be a serious candidate for high government office or at least head of a national labor federation. One might imagine Harrington as a scholarly Neil Kinnock, or a less technocratically minded Michel Rocard. In fact, Harrington has been welcomed abroad with enthusiasm. Since becoming a participant in the Socialist International—a debating society of European and Latin American labor and social democratic parties—Harrington has written resolutions on the Arab-Israeli conflict; he has met with Olof Palme, Shimon Peres, and Felipe Gonzales, and has traveled throughout the world as the honored guest of governments. But in the United States, Harrington may be the only socialist organizer whose name is recognizable to Americans who don’t read left-wing magazines.

Harrington hasn’t had greater success because American socialism during the twentieth century has been an increasingly marginal doctrine. Socialists of Eugene Debs’s generation, many of whom lived in neighborhoods or worked in factories where “the rights of labor” had almost sacred meaning, knew precisely what they were fighting for. But after the First World War, bitter disagreements on the left about the Soviet Union threw that certainty into question. The Communist party took over a large part of the socialists’ constituency. Among the diminished numbers backing Norman Thomas in the 1930s, the “working class” remained central; but the CIO’s overwhelming support for liberal Democrats made it clear that the labor movement was not ready to join a third party. The Socialists could only hope that the majority party could be reshaped and brought closer to their views.

When Michael Harrington became a socialist in the 1950s, that hope was difficult to sustain, nor has anything occurred since to revive it. The decline of manufacturing and the rise of service industries have helped to weaken the labor movement and made obsolete the old Marxian image of the typical wage-earner as a male worker who felt he was a member of the proletariat. Growing numbers of white workers have voted Republican in presidential elections out of feelings of national pride, and a sense of racial and cultural resentment. Meanwhile, brutal “socialist” regimes in nations as different from one another as Iraq, Burma, and Czechoslovakia have distorted the very meaning of the word socialism along with its moral image.

Among socialists themselves, during the past two decades, there has been impassioned debate over feminism, over Israel and the PLO, and over the wounds of the 1960s when the New Left and social democrats of the older generation such as Harrington and Irving Howe were at odds. During the last two decades, the racial and economic problems that once seemed to some degree possible to change have become more intractable. Marxists have continued to quarrel over doctrine but failed to convince many people that their vision might make people richer or freer.

In view of all this, it takes considerable strength and discipline to be what Harrington calls a “long-distance runner”—with the determination to keep going no matter what the prevailing mood. Harrington’s earlier volume of memoirs, Fragments of the Century, dealt with the civil rights movement, the New Left, and the nervous breakdown he suffered when he was faced with unexpected, if temporary, success in the 1960s. The current volume, while in its shadow, is also its extension, dealing with issues that grew out of those earlier years, and that the socialist movement is still wrestling with today. And though reserved about the author’s private life, the book nevertheless explains how Harrington managed to persist in such a long and seemingly hopeless race.


Harrington traces his political passion to the “mystery” of his “inner self.” He seems uneasy, as a professed Marxist, making such a statement, but he recalls being astounded when his sons were born: they “seemed to emerge from the womb with personalities.” And so too did their father, who tells of giving away his lunch money in kindergarten, and thinking of his life as “a trust to be used for a good purpose and accounted for when it was over.”

That trust was a fundamental part of Harrington’s education. A Catholic born in what he called the Irish “ghetto” of St. Louis, Harrington grew up in a solidly middle-class family. His father was a patent lawyer, his mother a former schoolteacher who received a masters degree in economics when Michael was ten. His grandfather was an influential figure for Michael, so committed a Democrat that once, when ill, he refused to take communion from a priest who was supporting the Republican Thomas Dewey for president.

Michael’s education was guided by the Jesuits—“historically the vanguard organization of the Irish,” he wrote in the first volume of his memoirs. In a Jesuit high school and college, the teaching was rigorous as well as religious, its “militant elitism” communicating the spirit of “being shock troops of Christ on the perimeters of the Faith.”

After nearly losing his own faith over the notion of the infinite punishment of hell, and flirting with Bohemian life in Chicago and trying to write poetry in Greenwich Village, Harrington was drawn in the early Fifties to Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement. It was as “far Left as you could go within the Church.” Housed in a building on New York’s Bowery, the staff of the Worker was committed to voluntary poverty while sharing rooms, clothes, and food with the alcoholics and drifters who came. They considered themselves “lay apostles” of true Catholicism. Dorothy Day, herself a convert to the Church, had come to the Catholic Worker movement through feminism and left-wing journalism; the movement, Harrington notes, was devoted to “trade unionism, utopianism, liturgical reform and interracialism.”

Harrington himself gradually lost his faith, moving away from the strongly Catholic elements of Day’s movement. His political faith, though, remained. In the mid-1950s he joined the Young Socialist League, a Marxist anti-Stalinist group of about two hundred youthful followers of Max Shachtman, a one-time Trotskyist. Irving Howe, a follower of Shachtman himself in the 1940s, wrote in his memoirs: “Of all the left-wing groups I’ve known over the years, this was by far the most interesting and troubled.” Shachtman’s position during the Second World War was that the great powers—Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States—should be equally condemned as examples of “bureaucratic collectivism.” After the war, the Shachtmanites rejected the notion that the postwar boom was going to abolish poverty. They began to move gradually forward into democratic socialism.

In 1958, the Shachtmanites decided to join the Socialist party, then led by Norman Thomas. This meant shedding the illusion that they would form a third camp between the US and the USSR. Harrington felt free to devote himself to the emerging black freedom movement. He helped Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King, Jr., in organizing civil rights marches, including the March on Washington in 1963; he worked closely on election campaigns with liberal unions such as the United Auto Workers; he tried to convince leading Democrats to adopt the goals of the civil rights movement. While Harrington traveled throughout the country, he kept notes on the poverty he saw wherever he went.

Those notes inspired the book for which Michael Harrington is still best known, The Other America. By graphically describing the lives of the American poor, by showing how in city after city people had no choice but to live in squalor largely invisible to the middle class, the book challenged the consensus of the late 1950s that Americans were “a people of plenty.” Although Harrington had outlined his thesis in a 1959 Commentary article, the book benefited from the brief surge of altruistic feeling during the Kennedy years. Its clarity and its grim, telling anecdotes not only moved a liberal audience but caught the attention of policy makers in Washington and helped to shape Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”

The Other America had larger aspirations. Harrington writes: “I had made the decision not to talk about socialism in The Other America because that would deflect attention from the poor.” But the book can still be read as a brief for farreaching structural change. He proposed government-sponsored medical care, increased welfare benefits, stronger unions, a higher minimum wage, and new public housing located in “existing and vital neighborhoods” rather than slums. And he called for a “vast social movement” that could convince organized labor and liberals to transform the Democratic party, and promote “a spirit, an elan that communicates itself to the entire society.”


Though The Other America was Harrington’s first book, its style and subject indicated the direction of his subsequent writing. Its tone of informed urgency, its use of recent work in economics and sociology as well as quotations from poets and philosophers, its argument nudging readers a bit closer toward socialism—these are present throughout Harrington’s subsequent work, in which theoretical and historical books alternate with those arguing for programmatic reform. Harrington’s indictment of the system combines a scholar’s deep knowledge of its inequities and a radical’s passionate hopes for a changed social order.

But Harrington’s ambition for a reformation in American politics has been continuously thwarted by the marginal position of socialism in the United States; the result, for him, is a pragmatism that requires the socialist politician continually to make compromises. Harrington feels he should not estrange any of the major constituencies that have traditionally voted Democratic. This often creates a conflict between the range of his goals and the moderation of his methods.

In 1968, in Toward a Democratic Left, for example, he wrote that “the American system doesn’t seem to work anymore” and warned that “the pragmatic, antiideological United States of America is in the embarrassing position of having to take some steps toward a new civilization, or else.” Here, Harrington sounded more like Mark Rudd than Norman Thomas, but Harrington’s methods remained in the liberal mainstream. In the early 1960s, he had sharp disputes with the first leaders of Students for a Democratic Society (which began as the campus affiliate of the socialist League for Industrial Democracy), and by 1968, he was a penetrating critic of the New Left’s romance with third-world communism and its contempt for electoral majorities. His political program was based on an alliance with trade unionists and moderate black organizations, who were then campaigning hard for the election of Hubert Humphrey.

This tension in Harrington’s politics between utopian dreams and practical programs can also be found throughout The Long-Distance Runner as he describes conflicts and reconciliations on the left. You could tell a lot about a leftwing organization, he explains, by how it sings the chorus of the “Internationale”—that anthem written for the working class that proclaims “L’Internationale / Sera le genre humain.” Communists sing, “The International Soviet shall be the human race.” Anarchists sing, “The International Union shall be the human race.” AntiCommunist-Leninists sing, “The International party will be the human race.” And as an anti-Stalinist, Marxist youth, Harrington himself sang (and probably would still sing): “The International working class shall free the human race.”

The primary rift in the left that Harrington considers is the one between the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and the New American Movement—the latter composed of “New Left alumni and alumnae.” Harrington was instrumental in arranging a merger of the two groups, creating the Democratic Socialists of America. Looking back, Harrington is inclined to think himself correct on the issues when he objected to the naiveté of the New Left vision during the 1960s—attacking its lack of historical perspective and its rejection of anticommunism. But he confesses he was guilty of a “rude insensitivity to young people struggling to define a new identity” when he rejected their positions as abruptly and passionately as he did.

In fact, the ghosts of old alliances and quarrels and conversions haunt the memoir. Harrington is pained, for example, by the transformations in some of his former allies in the Social Democrats, USA, who became increasingly conservative during the 1970s and 1980s, and by changes in such former friends as Ed Koch. When they first met in 1959, Harrington writes, Koch was a “different, somewhat lovable schlemiel” whose demeanor “marked him as an amiable nonentity.” Through a decade of local political battles, Harrington’s respect grew for Koch’s “gutsy” liberalism. When Koch decided to run for mayor of New York and his views began to turn conservative and punitive, Harrington connected Koch’s conversion to the “social trend” of other formerly radical and liberal Jews who changed their positions at the same time and became neoconservatives—a trend he stops short of analyzing.

Between these various currents of conservatism and disagreements on the left, Harrington has held steady, determined to work within established organizations, and through them to try to reach a wider audience. He is disturbed about socialism’s failure to attract poor blacks and Puerto Ricans, just as he is disturbed about its failure to transform the Democratic party; he was suspicious of Jesse Jackson in 1984, but supported him strongly in 1988, drafting several of his speeches.

But in Harrington’s memoir, the conflicts and political difficulties are less important than the intensity of his egalitarian vision. “I have the illusion of the inevitability of my life, the sense in which it forms a whole, the way in which themes that fascinated me as a young man keep returning in a dozen different guises—and in more than a dozen different books.” Those are all themes related to the arduous struggle to define and sustain what he once called “the left wing of the possible.”

For Harrington this struggle is spiritual and religious as well as political, thus placing him in a little-known tradition of the American left. When jailed for opposing US involvement in World War I, Eugene Debs kept in his cell a single picture—of Christ. Much of Norman Thomas’s radical faith came out of his early years as a Presbyterian minister committed to the social gospel. Harrington may have lost his own faith, but he still calls himself a “pious apostate,” an “atheist…fellow traveler of moderate Catholicism.”

For example, he may be, as an intellectual and political organizer, tough minded and skeptical, but when it comes to cultural and religious questions, he is often sentimental. There is no puzzle about why the utopian dreams of the 1937 movie Lost Horizon might have brought him to tears, but he apparently feels so acutely the passion behind both social deprivation and spiritual aspiration that he can weep not just at the death of Jo in Bleak House, but at the “hokum of the one-hundredth anniversary of the Statue of Liberty”—Elvis impersonators and all.

His passion for justice is so overwhelming, he explains, that it has a “libidinous” edge: “To me justice was, and is, beautiful, not stern. That is one of the reasons why I have not tired during all of these years.” When he was in his twenties he was asked by a friend what he would do if he had a million dollars: “I would give it away,” he replied, and volunteered the next day to work, full-time and without pay, for the American Friends Service Committee (which had no place for him).

These are not unusual passions for one dedicated to a salvationary movement, but Harrington’s utopianism is tempered by caution about the quest as well: “Whenever political movements go in search of a messianic perfection, they end either in triviality or totalitarianism.” He is a Marxist with (as he admits) a religious sensibility; his internal conflicts helped him keep a balance in the socialist movement between ideology and humanity, utopianism and practical politics. His views would surprise many who still think all Marxists are dogmatic materialists who rail at believers.

“The atheistic humanist and the committed religious person have the same enemy,” Harrington wrote in The Politics at God’s Funeral, “that slack, hedonistic and thoughtless atheism which, often embellished with a sentimental religiosity, is the real faith of contemporary Western society.” Harrington blamed the market system for undermining the ideal of the common good and he criticized the notion that old virtues or beliefs could simply be revived. But in language both Daniel Bell and Allan Bloom could endorse, Harrington condemned a faddish relativism for producing human beings who “no longer know what they believe” but want desperately to believe in something. He proposed a “united front of believers and atheists in defense of moral values.” His version of an atheistic humanism with moral values is democratic socialism.

This vision separates Harrington from the pragmatic liberals with whom he has long worked in unions and in the Democratic party, and from many of the social democrats who, at times, run Canadian provinces and several European nations. In this book, he writes, “While listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations there are moments when I temporarily believe in God again and weep for joy.” This faith, however intermittent, has sustained him as a long-distance runner, even as his positions have remained unpopular.

Of course socialists have taken an essential part in the movements of the American left during the past thirty years. They have helped to bring an end to segregation and the Vietnam War, helped to articulate the aims of feminism and gay liberation, helped oppose the nuclear arms race. But these partial victories owed more to the concentrated anger of particular social groups and a temporary coalition of the aggrieved than to careful analysis and planning by socialist intellectuals and activists. Even Harrington’s continued reliance on organized labor as the indispensable basis of any liberal alliance is bound to be disappointed. Few unions can still muster the grass-roots enthusiasm that might spark a revival of left-wing idealism throughout American society. Harrington does not explain why many left activists would choose the slow, anonymous work of building unions rather than enlisting in any number of single-issue campaigns, or supporting Jesse Jackson’s continuing candidacy, which have more claim on popular emotions and the attention of the press and television.

Harrington has been unable to translate the “need for the transcendental” he cares so much about into political practice because, in part, he is so reasonable. An increase in American poverty, the lack of adequate medical care and housing, the trap of dangerous or alienating jobs, terror employed by governments of all political persuasions—these are matters he knows how to document and expose. He can propose social policies that would address and perhaps even solve them. But how can he, with his rational analysis and his atheistic faith, reach the unemployed textile worker who joins Pat Robertson’s 700 Club? How can he explain why millions have died for the glory of Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah Khomeini? Harrington recalls David Broder once telling him, “You people are just too sane.”

Now Michael Harrington faces the ultimate affront to reason. He is suffering from inoperable cancer and will, he writes, live less than two years. When he dies, the gallant and quixotic history of American socialist leadership may die with him. But his faith is undiminished. He ends his memoir:

A few months before his assassination, Leon Trotsky wrote what I feel. He said: “Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.”


This Issue

March 16, 1989