You’re more likely to know William F. Buckley, Jr., than Michael Harrington, and I’ll use the former as a point of contrast and departure. Both attended Yale in the 1940s, Buckley as an undergrad, Harrington in law school. Each commenced his education as a conservative Republican at a liberal university. Yale law school in particular “was united politically by a feeling that the world could be remade. The crusading spirit and liberal idealism of the New Deal and the war years were still very much in evidence.” (p. 47, The Other American, Michael Isserman)
Buckley balked, and upon graduating wrote God and Man at Yale, a ruthless indictment of what he called Yale’s “socialistic curriculum.” He then spent years pontificating as a public intellectual, back when America still tolerated and even heeded them, a Republican public intellectual, no less, with his own T.V. show. Pundit is a more familiar term, but I hesitate to call him that; these days, intellectual is the last thing we expect a pundit to be.
Inspired by the liberal idealism but frustrated by law school and wanting to write, Harrington left Yale for the University of Chicago and a master’s in English literature. It was the beginning of a life lived in the public square, always as an activist and writer, eventually as a professor. He is best known for his book The Other America, a case study of poverty that profoundly influenced President Johnson's War on Poverty.
Michael Harrington and his political pals became the voice of American socialism. Under their influence the Socialist Party of America (founded 1901) changed its name to the Social Democrats of America (Social Democrats, USA, from which Harrington emerged to found the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee in support of George McGovern's presidential bid). The name change was intended to strengthen alliances within the Democratic party and distinguish American socialism from Soviet communism. The two had become synonymous in the collective consciousness of 1950s America, thanks mostly to Sen. Joe McCarthy; despite Harrington’s best efforts, they remain so to this day for many Americans.
I’ve been wanting to review this book for some time, in part because I’m fed up with abuse of the term. If you don’t like socialism, fine, but if you have to lie to make your case against it, you don’t really have a case, not that most slanderers are informed enough to lie. Among the recently and rigorously vocal – the GOP presidential candidates, for example – most simply don’t know what they’re talking about. Few attempt to make a case at all. They just issue pronouncements, on the assumption that any decent person already knows how bad socialism is. Socialist being about the worst thing you can call a person, especially if he happens to be the U.S. president.
“People speak of socialism,” Harrington writes. “We should speak of socialisms. There are dictionary definitions – socialism is the public ownership of the means of production and distribution – which are faded abstractions of one fragment of a rich conceptual heritage . . . What is needed, if socialism is to find a new relevance for the twenty-first century, is some sense of its enormous diversity and complexity.” (p. 28)
If you want to understand or argue about socialism in America, then for starters you should read Michael Harrington. He’s a good writer, his life story personifies an era, the particulars are among the most important and ignored bits of American history, and capitalist skeptics will find him full of pleasant surprises, such as:
“Capitalism was a radical new innovation, the greatest achievement of humankind in history, a culture and a civilization as well as an economy.” (p. 4) And: “The young Karl Marx was naively convinced that universal suffrage in a Britain with a proletarian majority would automatically produce socialism. It was, however, the Realpolitik of capitalist power that prevailed, not the democratic illusions of revolutionaries like Marx.” (p. 5)
Marx realized late that fragmentation and not solidarity of the masses would be the social outcome of capitalism. Harrington contends that socialism is not a stepping stone to communism but a means of negotiating fragmented interests to promote the public welfare while maintaining the rights of the individual. And that defines the American system at its best.
Instead of following party lines, Harrington draws outside them. A compelling and pragmatic hybrid of ideals emerges, necessary because: “The capitalist socialization of the world is indeed subverting its most priceless accomplishment – the creation of the possibility of freedom and justice.” (p. 8) The “collectivization” of resources and power by any elite is doomed because it excludes and antagonizes those it attempts to control; it follows that state ownership and control, “as this book will make clear in innumerable ways, is not the point (of socialism) at all.” And the point is?
This book is Harrington’s final answer. It was published in 1989, the year he died, and I recently reread my prized first edition, wondering if I’d find it still relevant. I’d forgotten that it opens by addressing that question:
“Socialism is the hope for human freedom and justice under the unprecedented conditions of life that humanity will face in the twenty-first century. Socialism? The hollow memory of a passionate youth, a youth that took place a hundred years ago? How can a nostalgic irrelevance be the precondition of anything?” (p. 1)
It can’t, but Harrington makes socialism more relevant than ever, via a concise but thorough-enough history of the subject – especially helpful to newcomers – and instructions for a future in which 21st century readers now find themselves.
He tends to overrate the influence of organized labor and slight other means of grass-roots involvement, which is the reason I give him four stars instead of five, but the principles of organization can and must be creatively applied; without them “internationalization, automation, and biotechnology” will continue to transform our lives but we will play little or no role in the process.
Harrington’s socialism is equal parts social, technological and economic theory, and applicable to industrial- or finance-based economies, the latter being the current and distressed American variety.
“Alain Minc coined his phrase ‘the slow 1929’ to describe the possibility of an economic crisis as profound as the Great Depression but taking place in fits and starts, festering rather than exploding. I think we are living through a slow apocalypse, a transition to a new civilization that could occur before we are even aware of it. If that revolution, which is in progress, makes us, we will lose ourselves; if we make it, there is at least hope for freedom and justice . . .” (p. 254)The following is by David Bornstein of www.dowser.org, from the NYT Opinionator, 1/12/12. I include it to help illustrate Harrington's relevance. If you haven't been to dowser.org, I highly recommend it.
When Michael Harrington’s landmark book on poverty, The Other America, was published in 1962, Harrington startled the nation’s leaders, including President John F. Kennedy, by shining a spotlight on the deep poverty that remained hidden in America. Harrington’s book became an underpinning for the War on Poverty. Half a century later, the United States Census Bureau has produced what may become another landmark reference. Based on an updated method for assessing poverty, the bureau has found that far more Americans are scraping by than was previously known: 100 million Americans — one in three — are “deep poor,” “poor,” or “near poor.”
Adding to the impact of this analysis is the growing realization that American society has become more calcified. The decline of social mobility in the United States is now acknowledged as a serious problem by Democrats and Republicans alike. As Jason DeParle reported recently in The Times, new research indicates that if you start off near the bottom of the income ladder in the United States, you’re far more likely to remain there than if you’re in the same situation in Canada or Europe. And if you start off poor in Denmark or Britain, for example, you’re much more likely to reach the top fifth in income than if you try to make the same climb in the United States.
It seems that the Danish Dream and the British Dream are currently more alive — at least for the most disadvantaged — than the American Dream. That dream has never been just about income, of course, but about self-determination. As Harrington observed, poverty is more than lacking minimum standards of health care, housing, food and education. “Poverty,” he wrote, “should be defined psychologically in terms of those whose place in the society is such that they are internal exiles who, almost inevitably, develop attitudes of defeat and pessimism and who are therefore excluded from taking advantage of new opportunities.”
In recent years, economists and policy makers have shifted toward this view. Amartya Sen, who won a Nobel Prize in economics, has argued that economists should think of poverty as that which deprives people of the opportunity to develop and use their capabilities.