Sticking It Out

The Long-Distance Runner: An Autobiography

by Michael Harrington
Henry Holt, 260 pp., $19.95

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…

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